The Minnesota Court of Appeals overturned two major Department of Natural Resources permits, citing the need for a contested case hearing. Unprecedented hearings on procedural irregularities in the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s issuance of the PolyMet permit recently concluded. The state’s Senate DFL Caucus just chose a new minority leader, one independent of mining-industry interests.
What do these events have in common? They lead Minnesotans to ask whether mining-industry politics have short circuited an evidence-based analysis of the costs and benefits of the PolyMet mine.
I grew up in Two Harbors, keenly aware that the iron ore and taconite mining industry put food on my family’s table for three generations. However, the proposed PolyMet NorthMet project is not the type of mining I grew up with. It’s riskier, both in environmental costs and in financial costs to Minnesota.
How did we get here? Minnesota’s regulation of the PolyMet sulfide mine is not working. Regulatory staff at the MPCA and DNR were overruled by political pressure and outmatched by the bevy of PolyMet consultants and attorneys working for the mining industry, including outside attorneys paid for by us, Minnesota taxpayers.
As recent court proceedings have revealed, the PolyMet permitting process swept serious risks under the rug while Minnesota agencies accepted PolyMet assumptions as facts. Legislators even changed the rules to try to block contested-case hearings, where an administrative law judge could independently analyze all the relevant facts.
The MPCA’s PolyMet water permit contains loopholes undermining citizen enforcement if toxic pollution violates water-quality standards. When conservation groups exposed dangerous tailings waste storage designs, the DNR required more reports rather than project changes, allowing consultants to profit without solving serious pollution and dam safety threats. Minnesota’s financial-assurance rules to fund long-term mine closure and cleanup were then circumvented. Minnesotans, and not PolyMet and its majority owner Glencore, would be left holding the bag for millions in cleanup costs.
There has been poor analysis of PolyMet costs and economics. There are well-documented costs from sulfide mining pollution. These include the loss of drinking-water supplies and brain damage to infants and children from the mercury contamination of fish. Other costs include increases in cancer and in heart and lung disease suffered by workers and nearby communities from air pollution. Yet elected officials refused to conduct a PolyMet Health Impact Assessment that has been requested by thousands of Minnesota health professionals since 2014.
The economic analysis of PolyMet is inadequate. No state agency compared the economic benefits of locally owned, value-added businesses against PolyMet’s foreign-owned, one-time extraction of metals. No agency scrutinized the risks posed by PolyMet and Glencore, the boom-and-bust history of copper-nickel mining, and the threat of PolyMet bankruptcy long before scarred and contaminated St. Louis River headwaters could be restored.
What can Minnesota do better? First, we must not assume copper-nickel mining is our only choice for jobs in Northeastern Minnesota. Minnesota should consider the benefits of climate resilience, health, and fresh water. State agencies should analyze what government, nonprofits, and educational institutions can do to support not only tourism but sustainable community development that creates local wealth and exports value-added products.
Minnesota’s Court of Appeals has given us a road map to, one, take a hard look at disturbing irregularities in the PolyMet permitting process and, two, hold contested-case hearings to sort PolyMet assumptions from fact while rigorously examining waste storage, unsafe tailings dams, and Glencore ownership.
We must call upon Gov. Tim Walz to direct the MPCA and DNR to hold fair contested-case hearings and put public interest ahead of political pressures. It’s time for Minnesota agencies to apply science, law, and economics — not just politics — to PolyMet.
Leah Phifer grew up in Northeastern Minnesota and ran for Congress in Minnesota’s Eighth District in 2018. She serves as board president for the nonprofit WaterLegacy (waterlegacy.org).