The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said Tuesday it has revoked a crucial federal permit for the proposed NewRange Copper Nickel mine in northeastern Minnesota, a project popularly known as PolyMet, saying the permit did not comply with the water quality standards set by a sovereign downstream tribe.
The Corps said in a statement that it revoked the Clean Water Act permit, which it had previously suspended, “because the permit does not ensure compliance with water quality requirements of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.” The tribe’s reservation, on the St. Louis River, is downstream from the mine and processing plant site near Babbitt and Hoyt Lakes.
“This is a huge victory,” said Paula Maccabee, an attorney for WaterLegacy, one of the environmental groups that have been fighting the proposed mine in court and in the regulatory process for several years. “It’s a victory for tribal sovereignty, it’s a victory for science, it’s a victory for the law. Although PolyMet has suffered other setbacks, this is by far the most consequential victory for human health, water quality and tribal sovereignty.”
The Corps said NewRange Copper Nickel is free to submit a new permit application with modifications to the project to make it comply with the tribe’s water quality requirements. But Maccabee said the Corps’ decision memo makes it clear that it would be difficult for the company to successfully address all the issues raised by the tribe and the Environmental Protection Agency.
NewRange said it’s considering its options as it digests the decision and decides on its response. Some other key permits also remain tied up by legal challenges.
“The Corps’ decision is one that requires careful review, determined action, and further engagement with regulators and all key stakeholders,” the company said in a statement.
PolyMet Mining and Teck Resources finalized a 50-50 joint venture in February that renamed the project NewRange Copper Nickel. They hope to complete the copper-nickel mine that PolyMet had been developing for several years, and to eventually build a separate mine next door in an even larger ore body that Canada-based Teck controls. PolyMet Mining’s largest shareholder is Swiss-based minerals and mining giant Glencore.
The Corps initially awarded PolyMet the Clean Water Act permit in 2019. At the time, Corps officials said the project complied with all applicable federal laws and regulations.
But it suspended the permit in 2021 at the request of the Environmental Protection Agency so that the EPA, in response to a court ruling, could study the effects downstream on both the Band’s reservation and the Wisconsin waters of the St. Louis River, which forms a part of the Minnesota-Wisconsin border. The Corps then held a public hearing in May of 2022 on whether the permit should be reissued, revoked or modified.
Tribal officials told federal officials then that the mine would violate its water quality regulations, which are stricter than the state’s, particularly for mercury and some other pollutants. The tribe said its higher standards are needed to protect the fish and wild rice that are important parts of its members’ diets and culture. The EPA agreed, and recommended that the Corps not reinstate the permit.
In Tuesday’s announcement, the Corps said it was obligated to revoke the suspended permit given the absence of sufficient conditions in the existing permit “to ensure compliance with the applicable downstream water quality requirements of the Band” under the Clean Water Act.
“This is a milestone determination and further proof that under law and science, this kind of mining does not belong in an area where there’s so much water,” said Chris Knopf, executive director of Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness.
NewRange reiterated that it believes the mine can produce copper, nickel and platinum-group metals needed for the clean energy economy in a responsible and sustainable manner, while creating jobs for northeastern Minnesota. The company said it has shown that its project, through its proposed water treatment and management processes, would result in net reductions of sulfate and mercury levels in the St. Louis River system.
Republican U.S. Rep. Peter Stauber, who represents the area, slammed the decision, saying it will make the U.S. more reliant on China for critical metals.
“The Biden Administration continues their assault on northern Minnesota and our way of life,” Stauber said in a statement. “We are on the cusp of delivering for the world and our country an ethically and responsibly sourced supply of these greatly needed critical minerals for our everyday life.”