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Local View: The problem with permitting mining in Minnesota is the unpredictable process

From the column: "We support the transition to cleaner energy, but you can’t achieve this transition without mining."

Michael Pfau of Duluth speaks in opposition to state permits for the proposed PolyMet copper mine during a public meeting at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center Thursday night. (John Myers / jmyers@duluthnews.com)
Michael Pfau of Duluth speaks in opposition to state permits for the proposed PolyMet copper mine during a public meeting in 2018 at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center.
2018 News Tribune file photo

Permitting large, resource-based projects, like mining projects, in Minnesota is a complex and detailed process. As it should be. We all want to be assured any risks are mitigated and any projects provide value to our communities.

What the process shouldn’t be is unclear, never-ending, and unpredictable.

Unfortunately, that is the case today. No one is asking to get an A on a paper just because six weeks were spent writing a several hundred-page document, as suggested in a Jan. 19 column in the News Tribune critical of PolyMet. Instead, what we should all expect is a process that is transparent, timely, and predictable.

In PolyMet’s case, the Environmental Protection Agency, under the administration of President Barack Obama, gave the redrafted environmental impact statement (EIS) the highest rating a new mining project has ever achieved. This was the same rating other notable projects received, such as the Central Corridor Light Rail Project in the Twin Cities, the St. Croix River Crossing, and several major highway improvement and bridge projects.

The final EIS was the culmination of more than a decade of detailed analysis and thorough review from various state and federal regulatory agencies, including the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the EPA. Additionally, three Minnesota Chippewa bands participated as cooperating agencies. The work of all of these agencies was thoroughly and painstakingly evaluated and documented in the final EIS.

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The process was rigorous and thorough — but, at every turn, delayed. For example, if a matter required 30 days of public comment, the regulating agency gave it 60 or 90 days. Whatever the time required, you could count on it being added onto. It happened time and time again. Imagine playing professional football and not knowing if each quarter would be 15 minutes long or if some quarters may be extended to 30 or 45 minutes.

The EIS process was thorough and based on science and, along with the permits, demonstrated that the project can meet or exceed all applicable regulations that protect air, water, and other natural resources.

Permit issuance is not based on the company’s word; it is the outcome of the comprehensive scientific evaluation and work of state and federal agencies. These same state and federal agencies enforce permits in order to protect the environment and taxpayers.

The Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, whose Northeastern Minnesota director co-wrote the Jan. 19 column, used to bill itself as an environmental advocacy group, just as its name suggests. But it has built itself up filing lawsuits and has grown from a handful of staff a decade ago to a robust more than 30 employees, many of them lawyers and legal support. The center has described itself as an environmental law firm. What does the center do? It sues the agencies that issue the permits.

But instead of winning cases, it is simply burning valuable time and taxpayer money with regard to PolyMet. Every final judgment rendered so far has been in the agencies’ and PolyMet’s favor. With every judgment, and there have been a lot of them, the size of opponents’ legal roadway shrinks. They are nearly out of blacktop.

The U.S. has ambitious timetables to reach 50% vehicle electrification by 2030 and produce almost half of our nation’s electricity from solar power by 2050. Closer to home, Gov. Tim Walz and the Minnesota Legislature are advancing laws to achieve 100% carbon-free energy by 2040. We need to advance domestic mining projects now in order to produce the raw materials needed for the production of electric vehicles and clean-energy technologies.

We support the transition to cleaner energy, but you can’t achieve this transition without mining. Energy generation is rapidly morphing beyond its traditional fuel-intensive emphasis into a “material-intensive” system. Since 2010, the average amount of minerals needed for a new unit of power-generation capacity has increased by 50%, according to a 2021 International Energy Agency report .

Minnesota has the opportunity — and obligation — to responsibly provide the minerals needed to achieve a cleaner future.

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Permitting and litigation reform is badly needed, and we applaud those elected leaders, including Congressman Pete Stauber, who are advocating for a more transparent, timely, and predictable permitting process.

David Chura of Duluth is chair of Jobs for Minnesotans ( jobsforminnesotans.org ), a coalition that represents business, labor, and communities in support of natural-resource development in Minnesota.

David Chura.jpg
David Chura

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