PolyMet Sulfide Mine Minnesota State Permits

Current Situation – PolyMet Draft State Permits are Pending

The PolyMet NorthMet sulfide mine would need more than 20 permits from Minnesota State agencies – primarily from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) and Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) – prior to constructing PolyMet’s proposed open-pit copper-nickel mine, processing plant, tailings waste storage facility and hydrometallurgical waste storage facility.

PolyMet applied for a number of state permits in 2016. PolyMet applications and agency permitting documents can be viewed here for the DNR permit to mine, here for MPCA pollution permits and here for DNR water appropriation and waste dam permits.

WaterLegacy has opposed draft permits proposed by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR): Permit to Mine, “Dam Safety” Permits and Water Appropriations Permits [links to discussion below of each permit].

WaterLegacy has also opposed the draft Wastewater Discharge (NPDES/SDS) Permit and the draft Clean Water Act Section 401 Certification [links to discussion below] proposed by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA). These permits both pertain to water pollution and mercury contamination of fish.

PolyMet Draft Permit to Mine

WaterLegacy filed Objections to the PolyMet draft Permit to Mine, along with a Petition for Contested Case Hearing (February 27, 2018)

WaterLegacy summarizes our Objections to the draft Permit to Mine proposed by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) as follows:

WaterLegacy believes the DNR draft Conditions are vague, unenforceable, and further serve to insulate PolyMet from demonstrating that its proposed mine project will use modern technologies and methods and meet legal requirements.

Fundamentally, the draft Permit to Mine for the PolyMet NorthMet copper-nickel mine fails to protect natural resources, particularly groundwater and surface water, and the communities – including aquatic life, wildlife and human beings – who rely upon these freshwater resources. Approval of this draft permit would pose a huge risk of creating a Superfund legacy of destruction and contamination in the headwaters of the St. Louis River, the largest United States tributary to Lake Superior.

Although the length of PolyMet’s narratives and reports has increased over the past decade, the quality of the mine project has not. In fact, since the FEIS process, PolyMet has taken steps backward: omitting mine site treatment, reducing dam stability, and lobbying to roll back Minnesota statutes and rules that protect natural resources. Overall, PolyMet has proposed a project with marginal economics that uses outmoded waste storage technology and makes unsupported claims that the cheapest waste containment and treatment methods will produce unheard of and extraordinary results.

READ the full Objections and Petition for Contested Case Hearing.

WaterLegacy later filed Comments on the Petition focusing on PolyMet’s Financial Weakness, Tailings Dam Plans, and Relationship with Glencore its “Strategic Partner.” (April 5, 2018)

PolyMet’s reliance on the potential expansion of the PolyMet NorthMet mine project in its communications to the news media and to potential investors calls into question the economic feasibility of the project for which permits have been sought.

Given the new information supplied in PolyMet’s March 2018 Technical Report about another storage alternative, it would seem reckless to proceed with permitting of the wet slurry and earthen dam flotation tailings storage facility proposed in the PolyMet draft Permit to Mine.

PolyMet and its parent corporation, Glencore, are sufficiently intertwined to support, if not require that Glencore be included on any Permit to Mine. . .

READ WaterLegacy’s Comments on PolyMet Financial Feasibility and Dependence on Glencore.

READ WaterLegacy’s updated Fact Sheet: Glencore and PolyMet – Bad Deal for Minnesota.

PolyMet Draft “Dam Safety” Permits

Mount Polley tailings dam catastrophe (2014)
WaterLegacy opposed the draft PolyMet “Dam Safety” Permits for Tailings and Hydrometallurgical Waste. (October 16, 2017)

WaterLegacy’s Comments emphasized deficiencies in the draft PolyMet dam permits:

“1. PolyMet has not performed studies of the potential hazards that would result from dam failure at its proposed Flotation Tailings Basin (FTB) or Hydrometallurgical Residue Facility (HRF) dams. PolyMet has also failed to complete materials studies related to the risk of failure of the FTB dam and has used unfounded assumptions in place of analysis of the risk of failure of the HRF dam.

“2. Draft PolyMet Dam Safety permits defer regulatory decisions that should be contained in permits and fail to provide conditions, final design requirements or specific contingencies needed to regulate construction, maintenance, operation and abandonment of the FTB and HRF dams to protect public health, safety, welfare and the environment.

“3. Draft FTB and HRF Dam Safety permits, along with the PolyMet documents incorporated by reference in the draft permits fail to provide adequate factors of safety, to comply with Minnesota rules or to address well-founded concerns, including those of DNR’s consultants, regarding fundamental design of PolyMet waste facilities.”

READ WaterLegacy’s October 16, 2017 Comments Opposing PolyMet Draft Dam Safety Permits.

Associated Press coverage in the Star Tribune on September 27, 2017 summarized concerns about deficiencies in PolyMet tailings dam safety:


“Paula Maccabee, an attorney for WaterLegacy, said her preliminary review of the permit documents indicates neither the DNR nor PolyMet have adequately assessed the risks to people or water quality from a catastrophic dam failure and release of toxic wastes. . .

“The DNR should have required analysis of whether failure there could contaminate downstream waters, including drinking water for the nearby town of Hoyt Lakes, she said. . .

“[T]he 2014 Mount Polley mine disaster in Canada, where a sudden tailings dam collapse caused a massive spill into pristine waterways, [serves] as an example of how catastrophic dam failures are possible and why more time is needed to study the draft permits.”

PolyMet Draft Water Appropriation Permits

WaterLegacy Opposed PolyMet Draft Water Appropriation Permits (August 31, 2017)

Here are a few important facts about PolyMet’s draft Water Appropriations Permits:

  • The DNR draft PolyMet water appropriation permits would allow PolyMet to appropriate 6.175 billion gallons of water per year.
  • PolyMet would be allowed to appropriate about 85% of public water used by Duluth, Proctor & Hermantown combined.
  • PolyMet would take 10 times as much water from Partridge River Headwaters as proposed in the PolyMet Final EIS. (More water than watershed contains.)
  • PolyMet would pay only $8 per million gallons appropriated.

WaterLegacy’s comments concluded:

“WaterLegacy believes that proceeding with draft PolyMet water appropriation permits is premature and inconsistent with Minnesota law. The DNR must first conduct an analysis of the impacts on water supply, groundwater, surface water and use of Great Lakes waters based on the appropriations proposed in the draft PolyMet permits, which far exceed appropriations previously described in the NorthMet FEIS.

“The DNR must also set conditions to protect upper Partridge River elevation, average and low flows. Then the DNR must require PolyMet to demonstrate that it can and will comply with conditions to protect the Partridge River Headwaters, the streamflow conditions proposed to maintain Embarrass River creeks and Second Creek within ±20% of existing flows, and with PolyMet’s promised 90% rate of contaminated groundwater seepage collection at the NorthMet tailings basin and Category 1 waste rock stockpile.

“The DNR must further analyze whether the magnitude of PolyMet’s water appropriations are in fact “necessary” or are only preferred by PolyMet in order to externalize its costs to the greatest extent possible. Finally, before deciding whether to grant PolyMet water appropriation permits, the DNR must determine what permit conditions, monitoring and reporting requirements, public review mechanisms and permit term limits could be sufficient to ensure that PolyMet, even if it has the capacity to meet conditions that protect Minnesota water resources, will in fact choose to do so during operations, reclamation and long-term closure.”

READ WaterLegacy’s August 31, 2017 Comments Opposing PolyMet Draft Water Appropriation Permits.

PolyMet Draft Wastewater Discharge Permit &
Draft Clean Water Act Section 401 Certification

WaterLegacy opposed the MPCA draft PolyMet Wastewater Permit & draft Clean Water Act Certification and Petitioned for a Contested Case Hearing
(March 16, 2018)

The PolyMet draft Wastewater Discharge (NPDES/SDS) Permit proposed by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) would allow the PolyMet mine, processing, tailings, and hydrometallurgical waste disposal facilities to pollute groundwater and surface waters in the Lake Superior Basin and increase mercury contamination of fish.

The PolyMet draft Clean Water Act Section 401 Certification proposed by the MPCA would give the U.S. Army Corps a green light to permit PolyMet water pollution and massive destruction of wetlands.

WaterLegacy opposed both the MPCA draft NPDES/SDS water pollution permit and the MPCA draft Section 401 Certification for the PolyMet sulfide mine project and requested a contested case hearing on both issues.

WaterLegacy concluded that the MPCA draft water pollution permit and draft Section 401 Certification would violate the Clean Water Act and state pollution control laws. Here are a few of the main points:

  • The draft PolyMet water pollution permit would allow polluted seepage from mine pits, tailings and waste rock piles to cause or contribute to violation of Minnesota state water pollution standards.
  • The draft PolyMet permit avoids monitoring near the source of pollution, so water pollution could go undetected for decades, if not forever.
  • The draft PolyMet permit does not set limits on direct discharge of pollutants to streams and wetlands to comply with Minnesota standards for mercury, other toxic metals, sulfate or other pollutants.
  • The PolyMet sulfide mine project violates laws for both NPDES water pollution permits and Section 401 Certification since it would increase mercury concentrations in water and in fish, degrade water quality, and increase mercury impairments of water quality.

READ WaterLegacy’s March 16, 2018 Comments Opposing the MPCA’s Draft Water Pollution (NPDES/SDS) Permit and Draft Section 401 Certification for the PolyMet Project and Petition for Contested Case Hearing.

Exhibits to WaterLegacy’s Comments and Objections to the PolyMet draft permits and draft Section 401 Certification can be obtained on request from Paula Maccabee, WaterLegacy Advocacy Director and Legal Counsel, paula@waterlegacy.org.