In Minnesota, the PolyMet mine pits renewable energy needs against tribes and the EPA

Northeastern Minnesota’s Iron Range has been a serious mining hub since the 1860s. Nestled amongst thick forests and a lot of the state’s famed “10,000 lakes,” open-pit mines there produce low-grade iron ore that’s shipped to metal mills round the nation. But for the previous couple of many years, as the U.S. metal trade has waned and demand for various minerals has grown, a number of firms have proposed one thing new: arduous rock mining, which includes extracting invaluable metals from sulfide ores and produces massive quantities of acidic waste. One of those, the PolyMet Mining Corporation, has been locked in a battle to open Minnesota’s first copper-sulfide mine close to the tiny city of Babbitt for over 17 years. The $1 billion mission has been mired in authorized challenges nearly since its inception. 

Now, environmentalists and close by tribal nations hope that current courtroom victories will shut it down for good. Earlier this month, the Army Corps of Engineers held a listening to to resolve whether or not to reissue a allow for PolyMet to dump waste rock on greater than 900 acres of wetlands, a risk that the downstream Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa vehemently opposes. The Environmental Protection Agency got here out in help of the tribe, telling the Corps that permitting the mine to go forward with its plans would danger contaminating the already-polluted St. Louis River with harmful ranges of mercury. 

As opponents spotlight the mine’s environmental impression, PolyMet is touting its potential for producing invaluable metals wanted to construct transmission traces and electrical car batteries — making it the newest dispute over the way to responsibly mine the supplies wanted for the renewable energy transition. In Nevada, a lithium mine is going through stark opposition from tribes who say it could injury a culturally, traditionally, and spiritually vital space. Cobalt miners in the Democratic Republic of Congo have reportedly been subjected to exploitative working circumstances, together with by the firm that owns PolyMet. At the similar time, a bipartisan group of lawmakers is pushing for a rise in home mining in response to produce chain points and elevated demand.

Activists say these conflicts are more and more testing the concept of a “simply transition” — one which doesn’t repeat the errors of the previous, equivalent to prioritizing extraction over the needs of Indigenous folks and the setting, in shifting to new types of energy. 

“The Band will not be against mining,” Band Chairman Kevin Dupuis Sr. stated in a press launch on the first day of the Army Corps listening to. “But if mining is to happen, we should make sure that our waters are protected, not only for the Band, however for all Minnesotans.”

This former iron ore processing plant close to Hoyt Lakes, Minn. would develop into a part of a proposed PolyMet copper-nickel mine. Jim Mone/Associated Press

PolyMet, which is majority owned by the Swiss mining conglomerate Glencore, first unveiled plans for its Northern Minnesota mine, the NorthMet mission, in 2005. Since then, it’s confronted authorized challenges to a number of different permits it needs to maneuver ahead, together with water air pollution, air air pollution, and mining permits which can be both tied up in litigation or have been despatched again to state businesses for additional examine and adjustment. And it’s not the solely disputed mine in Minnesota; in January, the Biden administration canceled two federal leases for the Twin Metals mine, which might have extracted copper, nickel, and valuable metals close to the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness. 

In the previous couple of years, PolyMet has leaned into its function as a provider of components wanted to construct electrical automotive batteries and different renewable energy infrastructure. The firm has stated that the space of the NorthMet mission comprises vital reserves of copper, nickel, and palladium — “metals very important to world carbon discount efforts” — and that it could develop into considered one of the nation’s prime suppliers as soon as the mine turns into operational, though it might’t assure how a lot of its eventual output would go towards inexperienced energy. 

“These metals that we’re producing are actually essential to not solely trendy society,” PolyMet spokesperson Bruce Richardson advised MinnSubmit, but additionally “for clear energy and local weather change and our personal safety.”

JT Haines, the northeastern Minnesota program director for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, referred to as this view “problematic.” The trade is utilizing the demand for brand spanking new metals for inexperienced energy as a “protected harbor speaking level,” he stated, to justify damaging mining actions with out addressing the core subject of consumption and extraction. Instead, Haines argued, the focus ought to be on the way to recycle and reuse the metals that exist already whereas decreasing consumption and energy use in the first place. 

“It’s clear that we will’t mine or drive our means out of the local weather disaster,” Haines stated.

The contested allow at the heart of the current Army Corps listening to was issued in 2019 – regardless of years of opposition from the Fond du Lac Band, which as a sovereign nation has the proper to set its personal water high quality requirements and the authorized standing of a downstream state. Last 12 months, following a lawsuit from the tribe, the EPA decided that the NorthMet mission “could have an effect on” water in the Fond du Lac Band’s territory in addition to the state of Wisconsin, and requested the Army Corps to droop the allow. 

Protesters on boats hold up signs proclaiming
Protesters collect on Lake Superior to specific opposition to PolyMet’s plans to open Minnesota’s first copper-sulfide mine. Duluth for Clean Water

At the listening to on May 3, the EPA stated PolyMet’s plan to dredge and fill the wetlands with mining waste may contaminate a number of waterways that drain into the St. Louis River, which flows by way of the tribe’s reservation close to Duluth. The greatest concern is mercury, a potent neurotoxin that may be a byproduct of mining. The NorthMet mission would additionally launch sulfate, which helps convert mercury into methylmercury — the metallic’s most poisonous type, which accumulates in fish and different wildlife and can finally be poisonous to people that eat it. 

The St. Louis River is already considered one of Minnesota’s most mercury polluted waterways, and the Fond du Lac Band depends on each the river and its upstream tributaries for searching, fishing, and gathering meals equivalent to wild rice. While PolyMet stated it could seize and deal with the mine runoff to forestall mercury and sulfate air pollution, the Fond du Lac Band’s scientists testified that the discharge would exceed the tribe’s water high quality requirements, that are extra stringent than Minnesota’s. 

The Army Corps is now accepting public feedback by way of June 6, after which it’s going to resolve whether or not to reinstate, completely revoke, or modify PolyMet’s allow. PolyMet didn’t reply to a request for remark from Grist. 

Although that is the first time {that a} tribal nation has used its authority as a “downstream state” to problem a federal allow that might impair its lands and water, a win in the PolyMet case may set a precedent for different tribes to do the similar, stated the Fond du Lac Band’s lawyer, Vanessa Ray-Hodge. 

“​​It’s an necessary mechanism for tribes to have the ability to use and to have obtainable to them to guard their reservation waters from improvement, similar to different states can do all the time,” Ray-Hodge stated. 

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