Long-delayed Minnesota copper-nickel mining project wins a round in court after several setbacks

MINNEAPOLIS– The Minnesota Court of Appeals on Monday upheld a state agency's decision to grant a major permit for the proposed NewRange copper-nickel mine, saying regulators adequately considered the possibility that developers could expand the project in the future.

It was a win for NewRange Copper Nickel, which remains stymied by court and regulatory setbacks. The $1 billion open-pit mine near Babbitt and processing plant near Hoyt Lakes would be Minnesota's first copper-nickel mine. It is a 50-50 joint venture between Swiss resources giant Glencore and Canada-based Teck Resources. The project was renamed NewRange Copper Nickel in February, but it is still commonly known by its old name PolyMet.

The issue in this series of calls was whether the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency should have investigated more deeply whether the developers harbored expansion plans beyond what their original permits allowed when regulators issued an air emissions permit for the project in 2019. ordered a look. Monday's ruling said the agency's updated findings “demonstrate that it carefully considered the salient issues” when regulators again concluded there was no basis to deny the permit.

NewRange spokesman Bruce Richardson said in a statement that he was pleased that the court concluded that the agency's updated findings support the conclusion that the company will comply with the permit.

A coalition of environmental groups had accused the developers of “sham permitting,” citing securities filings in which the company informed investors of a number of potential expansion scenarios, including one that would nearly quadruple production above officially planned levels. Critics say mining the vast untapped deposits of copper, nickel and platinum metals in northeastern Minnesota would pose unacceptable environmental risks because of the potential for acid mine drainage from the sulfide-bearing ore.

Company officials countered that they had not yet decided on a future expansion, and that if they continued to increase the size of the mine, they would have to go through an entirely new permitting process in which the potential impacts would be thoroughly examined studied.

Other crucial permits remain embroiled in legal and regulatory proceedings, including the umbrella 'permit to mine', a wetland destruction permit and a water pollution permit. An administrative law judge last month recommended that the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources not reissue the mining permit because of deficiencies in the design of the mine's tailings basin. The DNR must now decide whether to accept or reject the judge's recommendations, or impose new conditions on re-issuing the permit.

“Despite today's disappointing ruling, the fact remains that the courts have consistently overturned several of PolyMet's important permits,” Chris Knopf, executive director of Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, said in a statement. “Copper sulfide mining is the nation's most polluting industry and simply cannot be conducted safely in a wetland environment like northeastern Minnesota. We will continue our legal fight and work in the Legislature to update our outdated laws so we can protect our clean water from this toxic industry.”

But industry group MiningMinnesota said in a statement that the court's decision confirms that the state's permitting process is working, and said it comes at an important time in the country's efforts to increase its renewable energy capacity to combat climate change. to combat what the Biden administration has done. recognized that copper and nickel are needed.

Environmental groups also wanted the appeals court to consider the potential consequences if the NewRange joint venture chooses to develop a large nearby ore deposit controlled by Teck, called Mesaba, that could potentially double available resources. But the court did not address that issue.

“The combination of Glencore and Teck's interests in this joint venture portends significant changes to the proposed mine and additional expansion potential,” the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy said in a statement.