On July 19, the Minnesota Court of Appeals sent back to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) for reconsideration a key air permit for the proposed PolyMet sulfide-ore copper mine in the St. Louis River/Lake Superior watershed in northeastern Minnesota. At issue is whether the MPCA failed to review evidence of so-called “sham permitting” – that is, did PolyMet attempt to deceive the state by seeking approval on a smaller project than the one it actually intends to build? It appears the Toronto-based PolyMet was telling investors one thing in order to juice the proposed mine’s profitability, while telling regulators something else in order to get its project approved. Most consequentially, it seems the MPCA didn’t even notice.
This is just the latest setback for the state’s handling of PolyMet, which is Minnesota’s first-ever proposed copper mine. Thanks to diligent legal work by environmental organizations and Ojibwe bands, four of PolyMet’s permits have been revoked, suspended or remanded for additional review. The flawed permits reveal a state process that is woefully unequipped to deal with the insidious environmental impacts of sulfide-ore mining.
The PolyMet follies also expose huge flashing red lights for another sulfide-ore copper mine proposal by a foreign company: Antofagasta’s Twin Metals project, on the doorstep of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA). This mine and its vast infrastructure would sprawl for miles along lakes and streams that flow directly into the Boundary Waters. It would contaminate some of the cleanest water in the world; destroy habitat for moose, lynx, wolves and many other species; disrupt a flourishing outdoor economy that supports hundreds of businesses and thousands of jobs; jeopardize youth and family camps beloved across generations; and degrade a vast wilderness that represents a foundational heritage for millions of Minnesota families.
An industry as destructive as sulfide-ore copper mining (consistently ranked as the nation’s most toxic by the EPA) cannot be allowed anywhere near the Boundary Waters. And the state’s bungling of PolyMet shows us why the Twin Metals proposal should never be allowed to go through the Minnesota permitting process.
The inadequacy of Minnesota’s permitting process to protect the Boundary Waters is clear. State standards allow for pollution and environmental degradation at levels that would permanently damage the water quality and fragile ecosystem of the Boundary Waters and its watershed. Shockingly, Minnesota’s permitting process does not recognize social and economic impacts, such as the destruction of a healthy and sustainable recreation-based jobs engine. Further, the process assumes that mitigation and reclamation are possible – but no amount of damage to the interconnected Boundary Waters could ever be cleaned up.
The good news is that the proposed Twin Metals project depends on U.S. government approval to use federal land and minerals – especially so close to a federally protected wilderness area. This forms the basis for a series of federal reviews that can prevent this proposal from ever being left to the state. All mining, but especially sulfide-ore copper mining, causes significant damage to nature. The federal process poses an initial, fundamental question: Is this location appropriate for such mining in the first place?
In 2016, the Obama administration began the process of answering this very question. Under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, the U.S. Department of the Interior launched a comprehensive study of the ecological, environmental, economic and cultural impacts if mining were allowed in the watershed of the Boundary Waters. This process can result in a ban on mining of federally owned minerals in the area for up to 20 years. But the study was jolted to a halt under President Donald Trump. Now, the Biden administration has the opportunity to restart this common-sense study to determine whether sulfide-ore copper mining and its accompanying devastation of land and water should be allowed on federal land next to the Boundary Waters.
The clear conclusion is that it should not be. That conclusion, backed by careful scientific analysis, would prevent a state permitting process full of gaping holes from ever touching such a sensitive and special area. Action by Congress can make such a mining ban permanent.
Polling consistently shows that a large majority of Minnesotans oppose sulfide-ore copper mining near the Boundary Waters. The disappointing performance of the state’s permitting agencies with respect to PolyMet inspires zero confidence that they can be entrusted to protect Minnesota’s crown jewel. It’s imperative that the Biden administration act to ensure that America’s most popular wilderness remains intact and undiminished for our children and all children, far into the future. The stakes are simply too high to take any chances.
Adam Fetcher served in the Obama administration as press secretary for the U.S. Department of the Interior, among other senior roles, before joining Patagonia as global communications director. He now advises leading mission-driven brands on how to participate in the world’s most urgent movements for change. He is a Minnesota native and currently lives in Minneapolis.
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