A major win for the people of Minnesota, for clean water and the future of the Boundary Waters
Even before the Minnesota DNR issued PolyMet’s flawed permit to mine in November 2018, many in government, in the media, and even among the environmental community, considered PolyMet a done deal.
They spoke of the mine opening as though it were an inevitability.
Yes, it was widely known that there were problems with the permits. Many worried about how safe the tailings dam would be, had concerns that tax payers would be left with the cleanup bill and were disturbed by the prospect of an inherently polluting copper-sulfide mine operating in this water-rich.
Despite the red flags and flaws in the permitting process, many believed that inevitably, PolyMet would be Minnesota’s first copper-sulfide mine.
At the same time, a tireless coalition of individuals, groups and organizations — including Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy (MCEA), WaterLegacy, and others — continued to fight.
Glencore and PolyMet have powerful allies, including the very agencies (Minnesota DNR and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency) that should regulate this industry.
Despite the odds, the hard work paid off.
On Monday, January 13, the Minnesota Court of Appeals overturned three of PolyMet’s key permits — the permit to mine and two dam safety permits.
In order for the DNR to reconsider these permits, the case must go before an administrative judge, in what is known as a contested case hearing.
Here’s why this is important.
What is a contested case?
The copper-sulfide mining industry and their allies like to repeat the same talking points, over and over, about how we all need to put our emotions aside and look at the facts, the science and let the process move forward.
Of course, we know that the copper-sulfide mining industry is uncomfortable with facts and with scientific realities.
A contested case hearing is common for large projects. It involves an impartial, administrative judge who hears testimony, looks at factual evidence, scientific data, then makes a recommendation to DNR.
Based on all their talking points, PolyMet and DNR should be ecstatic about this impartial examination of facts and scientific data. Needless to say, they are not.
In the ruling, Minnesota Court of Appeals has ordered the contested case look into several specific issues with PolyMet’s permits. (All quotes can be found in the decision filed by the court).
Issues with the Dam Safety. One of the biggest concerns with PolyMet’s proposed copper-nickel mine is that the DNR gave PolyMet the green light to use the “upstream” method of dam construction to hold their waste tailings. This is the same type of dam that resulted in the 2014 Mount Polley disaster in Canada, which spilled billions of gallons of toxic sludge into a pristine ecosystem, and most recently, the dam collapse in Brazil, which killed 249 people. The. “upstream” method has been since banned in Brazil, but for some reason, it’s safe enough for Minnesota?
Reclamation. After the mining is complete, then what? How will PolyMet safely contain the millions of tons of reactive waste? The proposed “wet closure” method will cover the tailings basin in a 900-acre pond, where it will remain indefinitely. One of DNR’s expert consultants said it was a “major leap of faith” to believe that this “pond” can be maintained forever. “The proposed tailings basin will be a big pile of highly erosive loose sand and silt. The wet closure will include a pond of water on top that saturates the sand/silt making it less stable and more likely to fail.”
Tailings lining. Using an unlined tailings basin, how will PolyMet prevent chemicals and heavy metals from seeping into the ground water? The “solution” DNR approved was to add a bentonite-amended barrier on the exterior. This is a thin layer of soil that will limit the oxidization of the tailings, intended to “ensure that reactive mine waste within the [tailings basin] is stored in an environment such that the waste is no longer reactive.” However, this is an unproven method that may even destabilize the basin. A consultant for the DNR called it a “hail Mary type of concept … it will exacerbate erosion and slope failure and will eventually fail.”
Financial assurance. America is littered with abandoned mine sites that are no longer in operations, but still pump pollution into the ground water. In many cases, the mining companies have left town and tax payers are left with the cleanup bill. How will Minnesotan tax payers be protected in the case of an accident at the mine? Who will pay for clean up? As it stands, the financial assurance package is structured in a way that puts Glencore’s investors before the people of Minnesota.
The Role of Glencore. Glencore, the notorious Swiss-owned mining and commodities company, owns 72 percent of PolyMet. Yet, they are not named on the permit, a fact that would allow Glencore, which currently faces multiple investigations into corruption, to avoid liabilities.
Bring in the sunshine
Louis Brandeis famously said the sunshine is the best disinfectant. That is, transparency is the best way to prevent corruption.
Unfortunately, in its attempt to rush PolyMet and Glencore through the permitting process, DNR has tried to brush aside these problems. In a contested case, the facts will have to be laid out, in an open, public process and review.
In such a situation, neither PolyMet, Glencore nor the DNR can hide behind empty talking points or ignore the blatant problems with this mine.
Though we have achieved a remarkable victory, the fight is not over. Chip in and help continue to stand up for clean water and defend the Boundary Waters.
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