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Minnesota Pollution Control Agency issues copper-nickel mine permits

PolyMet will use rod mills, at right, to crush metal-bearing rock from 1/2-inch-sized pieces to small pieces of gravel as part of the process of extracting copper, nickel and other metals from the mine. The mills are part of the old LTV processing plant now owned by PolyMet. File photo by Bob King

DULUTH — The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency issued its environmental permits for PolyMet’s copper-nickel mine near Hoyt Lakes Thursday, Dec. 20, bringing the contentious project one step closer to fruition.

The agency issued PolyMet its air emission permit and water quality permits Thursday and also sent a certificate to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers saying the project would protect affected wetlands. Now, it’s up to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to make the final decision on the certificate, which is the project’s only remaining permit decision.

Last month, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources granted PolyMet its permit to mine and 10 other approvals.

“It’s a difficult decision, but it’s time to make (it) and today was the day,” MPCA Commissioner John Linc Stine said at a news conference Thursday announcing the permits, adding later, “I think decisions are difficult when you know people disagree with the decision you're going to make or that you need to make under the law and the rule. This project is consistent with current law and rules.”

According to the MPCA, the air emission permit sets requirements and enforces regulations on air pollutants and equipment emitting air pollutants while the water quality permit sets limits and requirements on pollutant discharge and disposal systems.

In a statement Thursday, PolyMet president and CEO Jon Cherry celebrated the decision.

“This represents the culmination of many years of hard work to allow the building of Minnesota’s first copper-nickel mine,” Cherry said. “We look forward to the opportunity to responsibly develop the NorthMet mine and produce those metals that are critical for our society while creating value for our shareholders and the communities in which we operate.”

PolyMet, a Canadian mining company, first officially proposed the project in 2004, though it has been under consideration since 1999. The project would refurbish part of the LTV Steel plant and produce millions of pounds of copper, nickel, cobalt and other metals annually. It is the first such mine to be approved in the state.

This would be the first mining project for PolyMet.

Opponents argue the project could send tainted runoff into the St. Louis River watershed and Lake Superior.

In a statement, the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, which has long opposed the project and is appealing the permits issued by the DNR last month, promised to fight these permits, too.

“This is a sham permitting process that the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy has repeatedly objected to,” MCEA CEO Kathryn Hoffman said. “As we have throughout this process, our experts and attorneys will take a hard look at the permits issued today and make a decision about what actions we can take to best to protect Minnesotans and the water they depend on.”

Supporters of the project say it will provide more than 300 jobs on the Iron Range and move the area's economy away from iron ore dependence.

“These permits will reenergize the region’s supplier and professional service network, assure long-term employment for skilled tradespeople, generate a more diverse and thriving regional and statewide economy, as well as create access to essential metals to power the green economy and our modern world,” Jobs for Minnesotans said.