MINNEAPOLIS — Several environmental groups went to court Monday to challenge the state Department of Natural Resources' decision to grant the key permits needed for the proposed PolyMet copper-nickel mine in northeastern Minnesota.
The Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy and its allies said in filings with the Minnesota Court of Appeals that the permits would threaten water quality downstream from Polymet as far as Lake Superior for centuries. They said the permits fail to address safety concerns about the mine's proposed waste dam and fail to protect taxpayers from the potential cleanup costs. The groups also said the language in the permits is vague and fails to set enforceable standards.
"The courts must hold the DNR accountable to the law or PolyMet's permits will be a blank check, paid for by the clean water, health, and pocketbooks of Minnesotans," Kathryn Hoffman, CEO of the center, said in a statement.
The groups also asked the appeals court to overturn the state's regulations governing nonferrous metal mining, saying the rules are too vague for courts and regulatory agencies to enforce. And they challenged the DNR's decision against holding a set of proceedings before an impartial administrative law judge, called a contested case hearing, to make independent findings of fact before the agency approved PolyMet's permits.
"This (litigation) is going to be the first time someone outside the agency takes a look at what PolyMet is planning," said Paula Maccabee, an attorney for WaterLegacy, another plaintiff in the appeals.
The DNR on Nov. 1 issued a permit to mine and other major permits to PolyMet Mining after years of environmental reviews and public hearings. DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr said then that no project in Minnesota history had been more thoroughly evaluated.
DNR Assistant Commissioner Barb Naramore defended her agency's decisions.
"We are confident that the permit decisions we made on November 1st are based on sound science, provide strong protections for Minnesota taxpayers, and are fully consistent with state law," she said in a statement. "These decisions are the product of more than 14 years of exhaustive review and reflect our careful consideration of more than 80,000 public comments."
PolyMet spokesman Bruce Richardson said the company doesn't comment on pending litigation.
PolyMet would be the state's first copper-nickel mine. The plan includes an open-pit mine near Babbitt and a processing plant near Hoyt Lakes. It's separate from a proposed underground mine near Ely called Twin Metals , which is in a much earlier stage of development. Twin Metals would sit upstream from the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Opponents say both projects pose high environmental risks because the vast but as-yet untapped reserves of copper, nickel and precious metals under northeastern Minnesota are locked up in sulfide minerals that can leach sulfuric acid and other pollutants when exposed to air and water.
Supporters say the mines can operate without harming the environment while providing hundreds of badly needed jobs in the region. The Jobs for Minnesotans coalition of business, labor and community groups issued a statement calling the appeals "one more attempt to delay a critical project for the state of Minnesota that has demonstrated it can meet or exceed regulatory standards."
The appeals are separate from requests that the opponents made last month to the DNR and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to suspend PolyMet's permits pending a ruling by the appeals court on whether the DNR should conduct an environmental review for a larger version of the project that they contend the company is planning. PolyMet would need to go through further environmental reviews and permitting if it ever seeks to expand the mine.