Minnesota Pollution Control Agency stands by PolyMet air permit

A court required the agency to provide analysis on its earlier decision after a report surfaced outlining potential growth at the proposed copper-nickel mine.

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Bob King / 2013 file / Duluth News Tribune
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Exactly three years after Minnesota regulators first granted an air permit to PolyMet's proposed copper-nickel mine, the agency again stuck by that decision and insisted any potential mine expansion would not be possible without the company going through the permitting process again.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency on Monday released additional analysis on its December 2018 permitting decision, which the Minnesota Court of Appeals required in July by sending the permits back to the agency for "further consideration and additional findings."

It stemmed from a legal challenge filed by environmental groups that argued a technical report released by PolyMet in March 2018 — 10 days after the air permit's public comment period ended — outlined the company's plans to recover 118,000 tons of ore per day instead of 32,000 tons per day — the amount listed by the company in permit applications. Increasing the size of the operation would undoubtedly mean air emissions would exceed the 250 tons of regulated pollutants per year allowed in the permit, opponents said, accusing the company and agency of engaging in "sham permitting."

While the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled in February that the MPCA did not need to investigate the claims of sham permitting, it did send the permit back to the lower court to review whether PolyMet's report for potential larger mine "undermined" the MPCA's conclusion and whether the company had withheld key information from regulators.

On Monday, the MPCA said PolyMet hadn't and stood by its permit.


"The potential for future expansion does not support a decision to withhold issuance of the permit under Minnesota permitting rules," the agency said . "PolyMet’s air permit remains in effect."

In a 21-page document , the MPCA echoed arguments made in earlier oral arguments on the case .

The agency said if PolyMet wanted a bigger mine, it would have to go through the permitting process to do so. Additionally, it said conditions on the existing air permit allow for monitoring and enforcement of the permit and would ensure emissions did not exceed permitted amounts.

The agency said any expansion possibilities were "speculative at best," the MPCA said.

"The potential that PolyMet will decide to expand its operations, however, does not change MPCA’s conclusion that the Permittee will operate the NorthMet Project and its associated processing activities in compliance with the permit as issued. … The (Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy) Letter and Technical Report do not suggest that PolyMet intended to increase throughput under the existing permit in a manner that would exceed the throughput and operations limitations." the MPCA wrote.

Jon Cherry, PolyMet's chairman, president and CEO, celebrated the MPCA's position.

“As we have steadfastly maintained, the facts and science prove the project will meet air quality standards. That has never been in doubt,” said Jon Cherry, chairman, president and CEO. “This important permit moves us one big step closer to constructing NorthMet, a project that will provide numerous economic benefits to northeast Minnesota along with a U.S.-based supply of metals crucial for the transition to a greener economy."

Meanwhile, the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, which had urged the MPCA to review PolyMet's technical report on possible expansion, said in a news release that it was considering whether to appeal the decision to the Court of Appeals.


Environmental organizations have long said that it's easier for companies to be permitted for expansion once it's already up and running.

“We are disappointed that the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has once again failed to conduct a rigorous investigation into the facts surrounding the size and scale of PolyMet’s true mining plans as shared with investors and securities regulators," JT Haines, the organization's Northeastern Minnesota program director, said in the release. "Like the now-scuttled Pebble Mine in Alaska, PolyMet is still playing 'bait and switch' with its mine project. Our state agencies need to probe these issues, not side-step them."

PolyMet, which would be Minnesota's first copper-nickel mine, still has a number of permits on hold because of four other ongoing court challenges.

Jimmy Lovrien covers energy, mining and the 8th Congressional District for the Duluth News Tribune. He can be reached at or 218-723-5332.
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