The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has revoked a crucial federal permit for the proposed NewRange Copper Nickel mine in northeastern Minnesota, popularly known as PolyMet. The move follows the Corps’ earlier suspension of the Clean Water Act permit, citing non-compliance with water-quality regulations set by the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, whose reservation is downstream from the mine and processing plant site near Babbitt and Hoyt Lakes.
Environmental groups, who have been fighting the proposed mine in court and the regulatory process for several years, have lauded the decision as a “huge victory” for tribal sovereignty, science, and the law. The tribe’s higher water-quality standards for pollutants like mercury and its importance to its members’ diets and culture were major factors in the Corps’ decision.
NewRange Copper Nickel is free to submit a new permit application with modifications to the project that comply with the Fond du Lac Band’s water quality requirements, the Corps said. However, it would likely be challenging for the company to meet all the criteria specified by the tribe and the Environmental Protection Agency, as stated in the decision memo.
PolyMet Mining, now in a 50-50 joint venture with Teck Resources under the name “NewRange Copper Nickel,” has been developing the copper-nickel mine for several years and aims to build a separate mine next door in an even larger ore body that Canada-based Teck controls. The mining companies hope to produce copper, nickel, and platinum-group metals that are needed for the clean energy economy and create jobs in northeastern Minnesota. The largest shareholder of PolyMet Mining is Swiss-based mining giant Glencore.
The initial Clean Water Act permit was awarded to PolyMet in 2019. However, the permit was suspended by the Corps in 2021 at the request of the EPA to study the effects downstream on both the Fond du Lac Band’s reservation and the Wisconsin waters of the St. Louis River, which forms part of the Minnesota-Wisconsin border. A public hearing was held by the Corps in May 2022 to determine whether the permit should be reissued, revoked, or modified. Tribal officials then told federal officials that the mine would violate its water-quality regulations and the EPA recommended that the Corps not reinstate the permit.
While NewRange Copper Nickel believes that the project can be developed responsibly and sustainably, Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness called the Corps’ decision a “milestone determination” that shows mining does not belong in areas with ample water. However, Republican U.S. Rep. Peter Stauber criticized the decision, saying it will make the U.S. more reliant on China for critical metals and accusing the Biden administration of an “assault” on northern Minnesota.