MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The Minnesota Court of Appeals on Monday affirmed a decision by a state agency to grant a major permit for the proposed NewRange copper-nickel mine, saying regulators adequately considered the possibility that developers might expand the project in the future.
It was a win for NewRange Copper Nickel, which remains stalled by court and regulatory setbacks. The $1 billion open-pit mine near Babbitt and processing plant near Hoyt Lakes would be Minnesota's first copper-nickel mine. It's a 50-50 joint venture between Swiss commodities giant Glencore and Canada-based Teck Resources. The project was renamed NewRange Copper Nickel in February but it's still widely known by its old name, PolyMet.
The issue in this series of appeals was whether the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency should have looked deeper into whether the developers harbored expansion plans that went beyond what their original permits would allow when regulators issued an air emissions permit for the project in 2019. The court earlier ordered a closer look. Monday's ruling said the agency's updated findings "show that it carefully considered the salient problems" when regulators again concluded there was no reason to deny the permit.
NewRange spokesman Bruce Richardson said in a statement that they're pleased that the court concluded that the agency's updated findings support its conclusion that the company will comply with the permit.
A coalition of environmental groups had accused the developers of "sham permitting," pointing to securities filings in which the company told investors about a couple potential expansion scenarios, including one that would nearly quadruple production above officially planned levels. Critics say mining the large untapped reserves of copper, nickel and platinum-group metals under northeastern Minnesota would pose unacceptable environmental risks because of the potential for acid mine drainage from the sulfide-bearing ore.
Company officials countered that they were undecided about any future expansion, and that if they were to go forward with increasing the size of the mine, they would have to go through an entirely new permitting process in which the potential impacts would be thoroughly studied.
Other crucial permits remain tied up in court and regulatory proceedings, including the overarching "permit to mine," a wetlands destruction permit and a water pollution permit. An administrative law judge recommended last month that the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources should not reissue the permit to mine because of shortcomings in the design for the mine's waste basin. The DNR must now decide whether to accept or reject the judge's recommendations or impose new conditions for reissuing the permit.
"Despite today's disappointing ruling, the fact remains that the courts have continually overturned several of PolyMet's key permits," Chris Knopf, executive director of Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, said in a statement. "Copper-sulfide mining is the most polluting industry in the country and simply cannot be safely done in a water-rich environment like northeastern Minnesota. We will continue our legal fight and work in the legislature to update our antiquated laws so we can protect our clean water from this toxic industry."
But the industry group MiningMinnesota said in a statement that the court's decision affirms that the state's permitting process works, and said that it comes at an important time in the country's efforts to grow its renewable energy capacity to fight climate change, which the Biden administration has recognized will require copper and nickel.
Environmental groups also wanted the appeals court to consider the potential impacts if the NewRange joint venture chooses to develop a large nearby ore deposit that Teck controlled called Mesaba that could potentially double the available resources. But the court did not address that issue.
"The combination of Glencore's and Teck's interests in this joint venture portends significant changes in the proposed mine, and additional potential for expansion," the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy said in a statement.