ST PAUL, Minn. — The Minnesota Court of Appeals has handed environmental groups a victory by suspending two key permits for a planned PolyMet copper-nickel mine ahead of a hearing next month.
The appeals court put PolyMet's dam safety permit and its permit to mine on hold, ruling Wednesday that the Department of Natural Resources failed to adequately consider two important developments that happened after the agency issued the permits in November 2018.
One was the massive failure of a tailings basin dam at an iron mine in Brazil in January that was somewhat similar to the dam PolyMet plans to build near Hoyt Lakes, which is the Iron Range about 190 miles (305 kilometers) northeast of Minneapolis. The other is the acquisition of a majority stake in PolyMet by the Swiss commodities giant Glencore in June, Minnesota Public Radio reported.
The court said that at the Oct. 23 hearing, the DNR should be prepared to address whether it should conduct a full-scale review of the similarities between the dam in Brazil and PolyMet's planned Minnesota dam, and whether Glencore should be added to the permits.
"Although the parties disagree about the import of the developments, there is no dispute that the developments warrant the DNR's consideration," the court wrote.
PolyMet downplayed the significance, saying the DNR has already addressed questions about the dam collapse in Brazil, which killed over 200 people. The DNR found in a review released in August that there were key differences between the designs of the two dams, noting that the one in Brazil was located on a mountainside while PolyMet's Minnesota site is relatively flat.
"We are confident that the post-permit questions that led to the temporary stay lack merit," company spokesman Bruce Richardson said.
But environmental groups hailed the ruling, which is the second legal blow that court has dealt in the last three months to the $1 billion project. The court in June suspended PolyMet's water quality permit, which was issued by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, pending an investigation into whether that state agency and the federal Environmental Protection Agency attempted to keep EPA comments that were critical of the permit out of the public record. Minnesota courts, the EPA inspector general and the state legislative auditor are investigating how those agencies handled the permitting process.
"With three permits suspended and three investigations ongoing, it's time for Governor (Tim) Walz to take this matter seriously and tell his DNR to hold public hearings to ensure that Minnesotans are protected," said Aaron Klemz, spokesman for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, one of the groups that is challenging the permits before the appeals court.