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There is no tooth fairy, and the PolyMet/Glencore mine will not save our climate

Last week, PolyMet’s CEO Jon Cherry showed up in Detroit at an electric vehicle (EV) battery show to complain that domestic EV batteries are being held up by failure to construct the controversial PolyMet sulfide mine. A day earlier, former Minnesota Pollution Control Agency legislative director Ron Way claimed in a Star Tribune commentary that the PolyMet/Glencore copper-nickel sulfide ore mine should be approved to solve the climate crisis.

There is only one problem with these arguments. The facts.

PolyMet’s permits conflict with law. PolyMet is a risky sulfide mine and PolyMet would harm, rather than help, Minnesota to reverse the climate crisis.

First, permits for the PolyMet sulfide mine are not stalled by “procedural” challenges, as PolyMet’s proponents frequently claim. These flawed permits have been reversed because one court after another has found that PolyMet and approving agencies failed to comply with law. PolyMet’s state permit to mine was reversed because state law prohibits an indeterminate “forever permit,” and because there was no evidence that PolyMet would meet legal requirements to control acid mine drainage after mine closure.

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PolyMet’s state water pollution permit was reversed for failure to evaluate or limit contaminated seepage through groundwater as required by the federal Clean Water Act. And PolyMet’s federal wetlands destruction permit was suspended because the Trump Administration failed to provide legally mandated notice to the downstream Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa that the PolyMet permit may harm its Reservation waters. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has since determined that the PolyMet project will affect Reservation waters in violation of the Clean Water Act. The U.S. Army Corps is now reviewing this evidence.

It’s not surprising that PolyMet’s permits have run into legal trouble. There is broad consensus that sulfide-ore mining has a dismal record in the United States as well as across the globe. Copper, nickel, cobalt and other sulfide ore mines leak toxins into the environment and have a nasty track record of closing mines while sticking taxpayers with costly cleanups. PolyMet is an example of least-cost and most-risk mining designs to maximize profit at the expense of our environment.

After repeated catastrophic failures, including the collapse of the Brumadinho, Brazil tailings dam with its loss of 270 lives, upstream dams have been banned in many countries. Mining industry guidelines no longer consider upstream tailings dams to be prudent engineering practice. Yet, PolyMet’s tailings dam would use this dangerous upstream design, and Minnesota agencies have so far refused to reconsider this imprudent design.

PolyMet’s wet slurry storage of reactive mine tailings with no dewatering, liners, or engineered covers also defies prudent industry practice. PolyMet’s bargain-basement tailings storage method guarantees release of toxins into the environment as well as increasing the risk of tailings dam collapse.

Minnesota agencies have not only approved PolyMet’s outmoded and risky designs. They have failed to require that Glencore – PolyMet’s majority owner – be named on any permits. Should anything go wrong, PolyMet will have no assets other than a contaminated mine. Glencore, the $200 billion multinational that benefits from any PolyMet profits, would walk off scot-free, leaving Minnesotans holding their leaking bag.

Paula Maccabee

Paula Maccabee

No facts support the theory that the PolyMet sulfide mine would help reverse climate change. Quite the opposite. The PolyMet mine would destroy nearly 1,000 acres of wetlands and peatlands, releasing sequestered carbon. A Minnesota Department of Natural Resources report found that just one mine that destroyed 1,000 acres of peatlands would increase our state’s carbon footprint by 2%.

Over its 20-year mine plan, PolyMet would produce 15.8 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent pollution, more than 10 million tons from burning fossil fuels. Copper recycling, in contrast, would save 85 percent of the fossil-fuel energy used by mining copper.

PolyMet permitting records – nearly a million pages of documents – contain no facts suggesting that PolyMet would provide “Buy American” EV metals. Glencore, which is based in Switzerland, controls all products that will ever be produced from the PolyMet mine. Glencore has well-publicized contracts to supply EV metals to China.

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Climate sustainability is vital. But facts matter. Whatever policy choices may be most effective to prevent climate change, approving the PolyMet/Glencore sulfide mine is not one of them. There is no tooth fairy, and it’s time to pull the plug on PolyMet.

Paula G. Maccabee is the advocacy director and counsel for the Minnesota-based non-profit WaterLegacy, formed to protect Minnesota’s freshwaters and the communities that rely on them.

More information available at https://waterlegacy.org/.

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