The Fight to Protect the Boundary Waters Intensifies in 2020


2020 will be a critical year for the future of the Boundary Waters. Important decisions will be made on the future of the two copper-sulfide mines, PolyMet and Twin Metals. Because this toxic industry represents an existential threat to the clean water of northern Minnesota, it’s not an exaggeration to say that 2020 may be one of the most decisive years in the history of the Boundary Waters.

Let’s take a look at three major developments surrounding PolyMet, the proposed mine that will lead to future mines around the Boundary Waters.

canoe in BWCA

1. A Faulty air quality permit

On January 8, Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, along with our partners Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity and the Fond du Lac Band of Lac Superior Chippewa, sued Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) over the Air Quality Permit it issued for PolyMet.

We brought this suit because MPCA issued the Air Quality Permit based off PolyMet’s claims that it would only process 32,000 tons of ore per day, which is just below the limit where it would be required to install what is known as the “best available control technology” to deal with its emissions.

However, PolyMet has continually reassured nervous investors that it would expand and build a larger mine that would produce greater profits. A larger mine means it would process more ore, and so, more emissions. The current Air Quality Permit lets PolyMet get away with using an inadequate method to counter the levels of emissions such a mine would produce.

The permit would allow PolyMet to violate the Clean Air Act.

Nonetheless, MPCA has refused to reconsider the permit in light of clear evidence that PolyMet intends to expand its operation.

This lawsuit is about forcing the state agencies to work on behalf of the people. We are pushing back against a broken regulatory system and the duplicitous methods mining companies will use to get around regulations that keep our air and water clean.

2. A landmark decision on PolyMet’s Permit

PolyMet’s proposed mine has been riddled with problems for years. Many times, officials either ignored these problems, covered them up, or quietly hoped they would go away.

Last year, on January 25, 2019, a tailings dam collapsed at a mine site in Brazil, killing over 250 people. The type of dam that collapsed was the same type the PolyMet plans to build.

The imminent danger posed by PolyMet could no longer be ignored.

This tragedy brought to light concerns that clean water advocates had been raising for years, namely that PolyMet was given the green light to construct an unsafe dam and use a dangerous engineering method to contain the toxic sludge that is a byproduct of copper sulfide mining.

In response to the disaster, Brazil decided that this type of dam construction was too risky, and would be banned in the country.

Despite commonsense petitions that PolyMet not be allowed to proceed with this dangerous plan, Minnesota DNR insisted that PolyMet’s dam would be safe.


The modeling DNR based their conclusions on was the same modeling used to determine that the Brazil dam was safe. You read that right.

What’s more, the same person who signed off on the safety of the PolyMet, was the same consultant who said the Brazil dam was safe.

And yet, there is a persistent myth that Minnesota has the strictest environmental standards.

While Minnesota DNR refused to reconsider the permit, the Minnesota Court of Appels cited “serious, justifiable concerns” over PolyMet using the same kind of dam that collapsed in Brazil.

The court also took issue with the fact that Glencore, the notorious Swiss-mining company that owns 72 percent of PolyMet is not on the permits. Glencore is currently under investigation by the Department of Justice and has an international rap sheet for corruption, pollution and union busting.

In light of these problems, the Court issued a temporary stay (suspension) of PolyMet’s permit to mine.

We expect a final decision from the Court on either January 13 or the 21st.


3. Evidentiary Case Hearing

Perhaps the biggest event happening in January is the evidentiary case hearings, which will begin on Tuesday, January 21.

These hearings will examine the extent to which Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) conspired to suppress scientific concerns that PolyMet’s wastewater permit would violate the Clean Water Act.

This is a hugely important case. The court has ordered a forensic search into the hard drives used by three top officials at the MPCA. Such a search can recover deleted emails and erased files. We may soon know the extent to which the top officials at MPCA worked to bury scientific objections in order to grant PolyMet a permit which was, in essence, a license to pollute.

For more details on the scandal, read out previous blog, “Something’s Rotten in the State of Minnesota”

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