PolyMet nears a key mining permit – but the NorthMet project is still not a done deal

So how close is the NorthMet copper-nickel mine to actually being built?

What happened

As of Friday, PolyMet has what's referred to as a draft "Permit to Mine" from the Minnesota DNR – one of the final big steps in the company's years-long push to build a copper-nickel mine (known as NorthMet) near Hoyt Lakes.

OK, so when is it being built?

It still might not be.

This was a significant win for PolyMet to be sure, and in a statement after obtaining the draft permit said it was "pleased."

The draft Permit to Mine outlines how the mine will be built, operated and closed, includes financial assurances should something go wrong, and explains how nearby environmental areas such as wetlands will be protected.

But crucially, it isn't final approval.

What still has to happen?

The Polymet NorthMet project ultimately needs multiple permits from both the DNR and the Minneapolis Pollution Control Agency. Both agencies provide timelines for every permit. Here's the DNR's:

So PolyMet has draft permits for mining, water appropriation and dam safety at this point. Public input, followed by an internal review of that feedback, still have to happen before the final permit decision is made.

The MPCA is slightly behind, as it's still developing what's needed for the draft permits.

And that's not all

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers still needs to give its blessing, since there are federal wetlands in the area, the Associated Press reports.

A land swap the U.S. Forest Service agreed to with PolyMet in January of 2017 still isn't a definite, as it's facing at least a couple of lawsuits from concerned groups.

And the public still has a chance to weigh in, including with objections. That process is now open for the DNR's Permit to Mine. 

There will be two public meetings in early February to do so (details here), and people can submit comments online via the DNR's PolyMet site

The DNR says it will consider all "comments, written objections, and petitions" before making a final decision on whether to issue the permit.

How do people feel about the mine project?

This is a heated, divisive topic.

PolyMet has been trying to get the NorthMet project – which would be the first copper-nickel mine in Minnesota – up and running for years.

The company insists it will operate the mine responsibly over the course of its 20-year life. Mining would go as deep as 700 feet beneath the surface, and over those two decades in operation ultimately supply about 225 million tons of ore.

Plus, jobs. PolyMet estimates 360 positions at the mine, hundreds more jobs created indirectly, and $515 million in economic benefit to St. Louis County – all key factors for an iron Range hit with layoffs and economic slowdowns in recent years.

Opponents however say it's too big of an environmental risk, no matter what precautions are taken.

Friends of the Boundary Waters, for example, argues it's a bad deal for taxpayers and the public, as the risks to nearby waters – specifically the St. Louis River, Lake Superior, and downstream communities – are too great.

Wildlife could be impacted too. That's what prompted a lawsuit from two groups, as they argued it would destroy the habitat of two threatened species – the gray wolf and the Canada lynx.

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