Court reverses PolyMet's key DNR permits, calls for contested case hearing

The Minnesota Court of Appeals dealt a blow Monday to the PolyMet copper-nickel mine project, overturning three key state permits issued to the project — and requiring the state to conduct a hearing before it works to reissue those permits.

In one of several legal challenges to the northern Minnesota mine, eight different groups, including the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, and WaterLegacy, asked the court to overturn a permit to mine and two dam safety permits that were among several the state Department of Natural Resources granted to PolyMet in November of 2018.

The groups argued that the permit to mine approved by the DNR does not spell out exactly how PolyMet plans to close and reclaim the mine after operating it for its planned 20-year lifespan. They argue Minnesota rules require final design plans to be submitted before permits are issued.

The appeals court Monday agreed with that argument, writing in its decision that “the DNR erred by issuing a permit to mine without a definite term.”

The groups also asked the court to require the DNR to hold a “contested case hearing” on the proposed mine before the agency decides whether to reissue those permits. The DNR had denied opponents’ request for a hearing at the same time it granted the permits, but the court said Monday that the agency had erred in interpreting state law, and called for the DNR to hold such a hearing.

A contested case hearing is a trial-like process, held before an administrative law judge ahead of a final DNR decision on whether to give a project a green light. It would include testimony, evidence and cross-examination. The judge would then issue a recommendation to the DNR, before the agency commissioner decides whether to ultimately approve the mine.

The process is common in Minnesota for large development projects. The conservation groups say the hearings are needed to settle disputes over issues such as the tailings dam designed to hold back PolyMet's mine waste. But PolyMet argues the project has already undergone the longest and most comprehensive environmental review ever conducted in Minnesota.

The PolyMet project, which would be located between Babbitt and Hoyt Lakes, would be Minnesota’s first copper-nickel mine.