The Minnesota Court of Appeals has affirmed nearly all aspects of the water discharge permit for the NorthMet project, overruling six of the seven challenges to the permit made by mining opponents and paving the way for the “reactivation” of this key permit, according to Poly Met Mining Corp Chairman, President and CEO, Jon Cherry.
The Court of Appeals affirmed virtually every aspect of PolyMet’s permit at issue. In particular, the court endorsed the district court’s factual findings regarding the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s (MPCA) and the Environmental Protection Agency’s interactions during the permitting process; agreed with MPCA’s application of state law governing groundwater discharges; upheld the agency’s conclusion that PolyMet’s project has no reasonable potential to violate water quality standards; agreed with MPCA’s finding that PolyMet’s project will not violate the Fond du Lac Band’s water quality standards; and affirmed the agency’s denial of mining opponents’ requests for a contested case hearing, the company said.
In its decision the panel concluded that the MPCA should still consider whether “any discharges to groundwater will be the functional equivalent of a discharge to navigable waters, and thus, whether the Clean Water Act applies to those discharges”. The court remanded the permit to the MPCA to conduct this functional-equivalence analysis, which the US Supreme Court established in County of Maui vs Hawaii Wildlife Fund, a new precedent set more than a year after PolyMet’s permit was issued.
PolyMet is a mine development company that owns 100% of the NorthMet project in the Mesabi Iron Range, the first large-scale project to be permitted within the Duluth Complex in north-eastern Minnesota. NorthMet has significant proven and probable reserves of copper, nickel and palladium, in addition to marketable reserves of cobalt, platinum and gold. When operational, NorthMet will become one of the leading producers of nickel, palladium and cobalt in the US.
The NorthMet deposit will be mined by open-pit methods to a depth of approximately 700 ft below surface. It is also reusing existing infrastructure of the former LTV Steel taconite processing site. It is expected to produce up to 57.7 Mlbs of copper, 8.7 Mlbs of nickel, 311,000 lbs of cobalt, 14,000 oz of platinum, 59,000 oz of palladium, 4,000 oz of gold and 48,000 oz of silver annually over an estimated mine life of 20 years.
According to a Reuters story, PolyMet received a state permit to discharge water from its proposed mine site in late 2018. Shortly after that, three environmental groups sued to challenge the permit. The case wound its way through the court system before this week’s ruling at the appeals court, which sits below the state supreme court.
“We are pleased that we have prevailed on the majority of the issues and the court has narrowed the case to just this single issue regarding Maui, where considerable scientific data already exists,” Cherry said. “MPCA has already determined there is not a permittable discharge to groundwater and we are optimistic the agency will reach the same conclusion from the Maui test. This will mean a little more process, but it gives us a clear roadmap to the reactivation of this permit.”