Conservation and clean water groups on Monday appealed state permits issued for the PolyMet open-pit copper-nickel-precious metals mine near Hoyt Lakes and filed a separate challenge to the state’s mining rules.

A separate filing asks the Minnesota Court of Appeals to overturn Minnesota’s non-ferrous mining rules, saying they are too vague to be adequately enforced by courts and regulatory agencies, the groups said in a news release.

“The courts must hold the DNR accountable to the law or PolyMet’s permits will be a blank check, paid for by the clean water, health, and pocketbooks of Minnesotans,” Kathryn Hoffman, chief executive officer of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, said in the prepared statement. 

They contend the DNR ignored tens of thousands of Minnesotans who asked it to protect people and the environment from PolyMet’s proposed mine. The argue the permits allow PolyMet to threaten water downstream for hundreds of years after mining ends, fail to address concerns of engineers who fear the mine’s proposed waste dam is dangerous, and fail to protect Minnesota taxpayers from paying up to $1 billion in cleanup costs. Those issues have been raised before, and the DNR's decisions were defended by Secretary Tom Landwehr.

“No project in the history of the DNR has been so thoroughly investigated,” he said at a Nov. 1 news conference. The work continued over a 14-year period and PolyMet has spent $131.3 million on environmental review and permitting since the NorthMet Project moved from the exploration to development stage.

“Taxpayers fund Minnesota DNR believing the agency will responsibly manage our natural resources,” said Chris Knopf, executive director of Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness. “With PolyMet, they put mining interests first and gave judicial review, popular opinion, and environmental considerations the back seat.”

The pro-business group Jobs for Minnesotans was highly critical of the latest roadblock erected by project opponents.

“After a thorough, rigorous and lengthy environmental review process with ample public input, this appeal is one more attempt to delay a critical project for the state of Minnesota that has demonstrated it can meet or exceed regulatory standards. The PolyMet NorthMet project is a major economic investment for our state and deserves to move ahead without further delay," the group said in a prepared statement.

"This project is Minnesota’s first opportunity to supply essential metals, such as copper and nickel, to the green economy and other critical components of our modern world. Through the issuance of permits last month by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, PolyMet demonstrated they have the right technology and the right environmental and financial protections to chart a responsible path forward for copper-nickel mining in Minnesota.”

Opponents argue that Minnesota rules require final design plans to be submitted before permits are issued, but the DNR’s permits will allow PolyMet to develop the open-pit mine and submit plans for closure later. The permits do not establish any standards for the approval of these future plans and the public will not be able to comment on them, the groups claimed. Landwehr has said any expansion would require extensive examination.

“There is a myth in Minnesota that we have tough regulators. It’s just the opposite,” stated Paula Maccabee, advocacy director and counsel for WaterLegacy. “The DNR has granted PolyMet a permit to mine admitting that its ‘design and operational details’ are not ‘firmly in place.’ At the very least, with Minnesota’s first proposed sulfide mine, we should demand that no permits be issued unless and until PolyMet shows us – and an unbiased administrative judge -  that they know what they’re doing.”

“We have extraordinarily rigorous environmental laws in the state of Minnesota,” Landwehr said Nov. 1.

The appeals also challenge the state agency’s decision to deny requests for a contested case hearing. The hearing would allow the case to be reviewed by a neutral administrative law judge, which is common for large and complex projects. The groups argue that DNR was required to grant a contested case hearing before it issued the permits.  

"With over 1,300 signatures and a majority of elected officials, Duluthians openly requested a contested case hearing on this permit," said JT Haines, an attorney and organizer with Duluth for Clean Water. "That hearing should have been ordered. The process fails all the time with sulfide mining, and we don't want to be the next example of communities harmed by downstream pollution."

The groups appealing the permits are Center for Biological Diversity, Duluth for Clean Water, Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, Friends of the Cloquet Valley State Forest, Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, Save Lake Superior Association, Save Our Sky Blue Waters, and WaterLegacy. They are represented by attorneys from Maslon LLP, Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, and WaterLegacy. 

"The DNR will make this the most closely watched project in the state," Landwehr said.