The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources will not reconsider two permits issued last year to PolyMet’s planned copper-nickel mine, despite formal requests from environmental groups and tribal leaders.
DNR officials said Wednesday that opponents of the mine didn’t raise issues that affected its 2018 decision to grant a tailings dam permit and permit to mine for the project, which would become the state’s first copper-nickel mine, located near Hoyt Lakes.
The decision continues a whirlwind week for the company and state regulatory agencies. On Monday, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled the state’s rules regarding copper-nickel mining were valid after environmental groups challenged the DNR’s authority. The next day, the appeals court put a stay on the water permit issued by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency until a lower court can investigate the way the agency interacted with the federal EPA on its concerns with the project.
A Ramsey County judge in St. Paul on Wednesday said environmental groups challenging the water permit can conduct “limited” discovery questions to the state and request documents, according to the Star Tribune.
DNR Assistant Commissioner Jess Richards said the tailings dam and permit to mine challenge was one of “multiple” requests from the Fond du Lac Band of Chippewa, environmental groups and individuals asking the DNR to reconsider the permits in light of a massive tailings dam collapse in Brazil that killed more than 200 people.
He added Wednesday decision is the final determination of the agency, but can be appealed.
“We do understand the concern,” Richards said in a phone interview about the scrutiny over dam failures elsewhere, but added the PolyMet dam has significant differences in the details and regulatory oversight. “We’ve taken a hard look at this and we’re confident the permits are sound and strong to protect Minnesotans.”
DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen said in a statement that the agency studied the failures, specifically the Brumadinho disaster in Brazil.
“Our analysis demonstrates that there are significant differences in site conditions, engineering design, and operating requirements and we remain confident in the safety of the PolyMet tailings dam as permitted,” Strommen said.
Among the considerations made by the DNR were modeling different scenarios the PolyMet mine could face, including an earthquake, the tailings basin liquifying and proximity to the mine site.
Richards notes the Brumadinho dam was built on a valley near where Vale, the company that operated the mine, performed routine blasting. The dam was also not subject to the same scenario-testing as PolyMet.
He added that PolyMet has “virtually no inflow of water” into their tailings basin and the dam is located 8 miles from the mining site.
“We appreciate the state’s thoughtful and conclusive decision formally denying environmental groups’ request for reconsideration of these permits,” said PolyMet CEO Jon Cherry.
In a courtroom Wednesday, terms of the water permit investigation were set by Judge John Guthmann, who set the limited discovery after lawyers for project opponents argued for more time and lawyers for PolyMet and the MPCA sought no additional discovery.
Guthmann said both sides will be allowed to submit 25 written questions to the other side and request 25 documents. Both sides have one week to object to the questions. After any objections are resolved, the parties have 30 days to answer the questions.
“If some sort of fact finding is not allowed, it essentially means there is a substantial risk that the hearing process will be useless,” Guthmann said, according to the Star Tribune. “That offends my own notion of due process.”
The Associated Press and Star Tribune contributed to this report.