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Court reverses PolyMet permits in major boost for conservation groups

Another delay for the long-planned project.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals on Monday reversed two permits issued by the Minnesota DNR for the PolyMet copper-nickel mine project in northern Minnesota.

In a setback for Canada-based PolyMet Mining, the court ruled that the mine and dam safety permits issued by the DNR in 2018 require additional review.

The NorthMet project would see the refurbishment of the former LTV Steel Mining processing plant near Hoyt Lakes and Babbitt, with mining then going as deep as 700 feet beneath the surface, generating 225 million tons of ore over its two decades of operation.

But the court found that the DNR had made an error by not holding "contested case hearings" on the permits to discuss potential environmental concerns, with objections having been raised by the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and several environmental groups including the Friends of the Boundary Waters.

The court also found that the DNR should not have issued a permit without it having a defined time limit for operations to begin.

"The DNR’s decision to deny a contested-case hearing in relation to the NorthMet project was based on errors of law and unsupported by substantial evidence, and the DNR also erred by failing to include a definite term in the NorthMet permit to mine," wrote Chief Judge Edward Cleary. 

While the court has not rejected the permits outright, sending them back to the DNR will mean further delay on the long-planned PolyMet project, with the DNR now required to hold a contested-case hearing.

The Star Tribune reports it could complicate PolyMet's ability to get financing for the $1 billion project.

There could be more delays on the horizon as well. Last year, the Court of Appeals ordered a review into how the DNR handled the approval of a PolyMet water permit.

It comes after leaked emails between the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) showed the MPCA ask the EPA not to submit its concerns about the project during the public comment period.

According to court documents, the EPA’s comments on the permit were reduced to phone calls and interviews that “departed from typical procedures in addressing the NorthMet permit." Some of the comments were left off of the official administrative public record.

The Associated Press reports that a Ramsey County judge will open a 5-10-day fact-finding hearing on this issue next week.

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