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Two big wins — and a setback — for mining projects in northern Minnesota

The developments left political opponents and environmental groups reeling, even as an attempt to cement a critical land-exchange between PolyMet and the U.S. Forest Service fell apart on Thursday.

John Linc Stine
John Linc Stine, commissioner of Minnesota's Pollution Control Agency, speaking to the press on Thursday in St. Paul after his agency approved environmental permits for the PolyMet copper-nickel mine proposal in northern Minnesota.
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein

It has been a year full of victories for two companies that hope to build copper-nickel mines in northeastern Minnesota and they both received an extra boost on Thursday to cap off 2018, drawing celebration from mining supporters and fury from adversaries.

First, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency approved vital clean air and water permits for PolyMet, a $1 billion project near Hoyt Lakes that is nearing construction — perhaps as soon as early 2019.

Later in the day, the federal Bureau of Land Management announced it intends to renew the mineral leases of Twin Metals in Superior National Forest — near Ely and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area — following a 30-day comment period. That fiercely-contested project is not as close to construction, but a lease renewal would complete a total reversal for the feds, which stalled Twin Metals by rejecting new mineral leases in the final weeks of Barack Obama’s administration.

Nancy Norr, chairwoman of Jobs for Minnesotans, a coalition of business and labor groups who support the mines, said in an email to media the two decisions were “welcome news for the future of northeast Minnesota mining.” Twin Metals and PolyMet have each promised hundreds of jobs if their mines open.

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The developments left political opponents and environmental groups reeling, even as an attempt to cement a land-exchange between PolyMet and the U.S. Forest Service fell apart in Congress on Thursday. The land swap, which is being challenged in court, is seen as a critical prerequisite to the project.

Outgoing DFL Gov. Mark Dayton reacted to the Twin Metals decision with a blistering statement, saying President Donald Trump’s Administration, “driven by greed and willful ignorance,” has “consistently demonstrated an insatiable appetite for selling out to large corporate interests, at the expense of our environment.”

PolyMet inches forward

In recent months, PolyMet has cruised through Minnesota’s regulatory process.

MinnPost photo by Brian Halliday
Pete Stauber
The state Department of Natural Resources granted the company a crucial permit to mine in November, clearing what was considered the biggest obstacle to the project in Minnesota government. Thursday’s decision from the MPCA gave PolyMet their last major state permits, leaving a wetlands permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as the final remaining substantive approval.

“Only one permit remains!” Rep.-elect Pete Stauber, a Republican set to serve Minnesota’s 8th District, said in a post on Twitter. “Let’s unleash the economic engine in the 8th District!”

If built, PolyMet says its open-pit mine, which would be the first of its kind in Minnesota, will produce roughly 1.2 billion pounds of copper, 170 million pounds of nickel and a trove of other metals over 20 years.

PolyMet has not attracted as much outrage as Twin Metals, even though both mines would tap into the vast Duluth Complex of copper and nickel deposits in the region. Dayton and a wide swath of DFLers and Republicans support PolyMet.

The biggest difference between the two is Twin Metals sits on the edge of the Boundary Waters, Minnesota’s most pristine and treasured wilderness area. Copper-nickel mining has more long-term risks to the environment than traditional iron mining that has dominated the region in the past, since it creates acid that can leachy heavy metals into water.  And the Twin Metals Mine could pollute waters that flow into the BWCA.

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PolyMet, which would be located within Lake Superior’s watershed, has also raised opposition. The Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, one organization that has filed lawsuits over the PolyMet mining permits, also warned on Twitter of a domino theory: that is, if PolyMet is built, it would be easier for Twin Metals and other copper-nickel mines to follow.

“We think this [mine] does not meet the rules and the laws —  we think the rules and laws that we have in Minnesota are not strong,” MCEA Spokesman Aaron Klemz said in an interview. The group has also challenged whether the state’s rules for non-iron mines are adequate.

Twin Metals keeps on winning

While the Twin Metals project likely faces a tougher road to operation, it has seen a u-turn in its fortunes since Trump took office.

The Obama administration blocked new mineral leases for Twin Metals in 2016, citing concerns that acid mine drainage could harm the BWCA. But Obama’s administration was also studying the effect copper-nickel mining in Superior National Forest could have on the wilderness, which may have led to a 20-year moratorium on such mining.

Trump, a consistent advocate for mining and mineral extraction on public land, has flipped those decisions. In September, his administration ended the study and cancelled the application for a copper-nickel mining ban. It also worked to reverse the lease decision, arguing the original mineral agreement  — which dates back to 1966 — didn’t give the government a choice over whether to grant Twin Metals a renewal. The government then reinstated Twin Metals’ leases, along with an application for a third renewal, which is the one now set to be granted. The leases had previously been renewed in 1989 and 2004.

After the announcement from the BLM on Thursday, Twin Metals spokesman David Ulrich issued a statement saying the company “looks forward to the timely and proper completion of the lease renewal process.” The company is owned by Chilean mining giant Antofagasta.

Norr, of Jobs for Minnesotans, said the BLM decision was “one of many important milestones that Twin Metals will work to achieve before entering the robust environmental review process required prior to any mining activity.” Twin Metals expects to process 20,000 tons of ore per day if it’s built. The company also says the underground mine would create 650 direct-full time jobs, plus another 1,300 spinoff jobs.

In response to the lease renewal plan, U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, a DFLer from Minnesota’s 4th District, called the decision “blatantly political” and jabbed at Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke for the swarm of ethics investigations that prompted his resignation. (The BLM is part of Interior.)

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McCollum will be the chairwoman of the powerful Appropriations Subcommittee on the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies when Democrats take House control in 2019. She has promised to investigate the Trump administration’s decisions related to Twin Metals and work to halt or slow the mine.

“With Secretary Zinke leaving his post under clouds of serious ethical scandals, extending these leases is aligned with his disdain for integrity, stewardship, and science,” McCollum said in a statement. “When the new Democratic controlled Congress convenes in January, I intend to use my role on the Appropriations Committee to reign in this misguided leasing process, demand real science for the Interior Department, and protect the BWCA for future generations.”

House Democrats keep PolyMet lawsuits alive

While Thursday brought dismay for many opposed to the mines, another win for mining was warded off by Congress. At least one Minnesota DFLer —  outgoing Rep. Rick Nolan of the 8th District — made a push for the PolyMet land exchange bill to be included in a larger package of legislation related to public lands.

In that swap, which was initiated under Obama and closed in late June, PolyMet handed over 6,690 acres of land for 6,650 acres of federal land in Superior National Forest. But environmental organizations have filed lawsuits alleging the government undervalued its land when making the transaction.

Rep. Betty McCollum
MinnPost file photo by Bill Kelley
Rep. Betty McCollum
The PolyMet bill would end those legal challenges, which have been paused by a judge pending Congressional action. The measure nearly passed Congress earlier this year and became a hot campaign issue, particularly in Minnesota Sen. Tina Smith’s DFL primary race against mining opponent Richard W. Painter. Smith supports the land exchange.

But while the PolyMet bill has attracted substantial bipartisan support at times, it was not included in a final public lands package. It’s unclear to what extent it was even considered, but signs point to Arizona Rep. Raúl Grijalva as a significant obstacle.

Grijalva, the incoming chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources and a top negotiator on the lands package, voted against the land-swap bill when it passed the House in late 2017. (McCollum did, too.)

Rebekah Hoshiko, a spokeswoman for Republicans on the natural resources committee, said in an email the GOP “strongly” supports the measure, but ran into opposition from House Democrats. Adam Sarvana, a spokesman for Democrats on the committee, said Grijalva’s views have not changed since his 2017 vote.

In the end, Congressional leaders decided to punt on a lands package altogether amid chaotic efforts to prevent a government shutdown. But they reportedly promised to take up the issue again in the new Congress, when Democrats will have even more negotiating leverage. The latest version of the omnibus lands bill did not include the PolyMet measure, Sarvana said.

Klemz, the MCEA spokesman, said it was “hard to say for sure” whether the land-exchange bill is less likely to pass with Democrats in House control. But he said it’s “certainly true the committee leadership will be more amenable to our perspective.”

In an interview with MinnPost on Wednesday, Stauber, the 8th District Republican, vowed to take up the issue next year anyway. He said he hopes bipartisan support will be enough to carry it over the finish line to boost the chances of the PolyMet mine.

If recent pro-mining momentum continues, Stauber may be right.

“Using 21st century technology we know we can mine safely, keeping the water and air clean and providing good paying jobs which would be an economic boon to northeastern Minnesota,” Stauber said.