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Appeals Court issues mixed Polymet ruling

(The Center Square) – A three-judge panel on the Minnesota Court of Appeals handed down a mixed-opinion ruling on the planned Polymet copper-nickel mine in St. Louis County, six miles south of Babbitt.

The ruling is the latest in a years-long battle between labor groups teamed with Republicans versus environmental groups and Native American tribes that have legally challenged multiple Polymet permits.

The ruling said the state Pollution Control Agency (PCA) “erred” by not considering whether the federal Clean Water Act applies to future Polymet discharge and remanded that question back to the PCA.

“We conclude that the PCA erred by not properly considering whether the federal Clean Water Act applies to any future discharges from PolyMet’s facility to groundwater,” the judges wrote. “But we conclude that there is no reversible error with respect to all other issues that have been raised by the parties.”

At issue is the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit that governs pollution discharged into rivers, lakes, streams, and wetlands. The PCA oversees the permit and the federal government regulates the same permit via the Clean Water Act.

A 2020 U.S. Supreme Court ruling found the Clean Water Act applies to groundwater discharges that later pollute “navigable waters,” including rivers, lakes, and oceans, but that was after the PCA issued the permit in 2018.

However, the three-judge panel rejected environmental arguments for a “contested case hearing” and a higher regulation on the treated wastewater.

The mixed-ruling means that the Polymet project is once again delayed but not stopped, which both groups celebrated. 

In a statement, Jobs for Minnesota welcomed the ruling.

“Jobs for Minnesotans is pleased with today’s ruling by the Minnesota Court of Appeals regarding the Polymet Northmet project’s water discharge permit. We appreciate the Court’s strong affirmation that the MPCA permit for Polymet is protective of Minnesota’s waters. The extensive scientific record of the project prevailed yet again and the environmental review process was upheld.”

The Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy (MCEA) touted the rejected permit.

“The agency obviously has more work to do to protect Minnesota’s waters and communities from the serious risks of sulfide mining,” MCEA CEO Kathryn Hoffman said in a statement. “It’s time for Governor Walz to move on from PolyMet’s failed proposal and create a better and safer job creation plan for Northeastern Minnesota.”

While many car manufacturers have pledged to pivot toward electric cars, those require batteries including lithium-ion, copper, cobalt and nickel obtained through mining.

Benchmark Minerals Intelligence estimates a possible 12-fold increase in U.S. lithium production by 2030, as well as increases in domestic output of domestic copper, nickel, and cobalt.

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