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US Army Corps revokes permit for Minnesota mine, cites threat to downstream tribe’s water standards

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The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has revoked the permit for the proposed NewRange Copper Nickel mine in northeastern Minnesota, also known as PolyMet.

The Army Corps made this decision on June 6, 2023, stating that the permit did not meet the water quality standards set by a downstream tribe with sovereign rights.

The Clean Water Act permit, previously suspended by the Corps, was revoked because it failed to ensure compliance with the water quality requirements of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

The tribe’s reservation, located downstream from the mine and processing plant near Babbitt and Hoyt Lakes, relies on the St. Louis River for water.

Environmental groups, including WaterLegacy, have been actively opposing the proposed mine in court and through regulatory processes.

Paula Maccabee, an attorney for WaterLegacy, hailed the revocation “as a significant victory for tribal sovereignty, science, and the law.”

She emphasized the positive impact on human health, water quality, and tribal rights.

The Corps stated that “NewRange Copper Nickel can submit a new permit application with modifications to meet the tribe’s water quality requirements.”

However, Maccabee believes it would be challenging for the company to address all the concerns raised by the tribe and the Environmental Protection Agency, as outlined in the Corps’ decision memo.

NewRange Copper Nickel is currently evaluating its options and considering its response to the decision. Legal challenges also continue to affect other key permits required for the mine.

PolyMet Mining and Teck Resources, in a joint venture, renamed the project NewRange Copper Nickel earlier this year. Their objective is to develop the copper-nickel mine that PolyMet has been working on for several years, with plans for an additional mine adjacent to it, controlled by Teck Resources. Glencore, a Swiss-based minerals and mining company, holds the largest share in PolyMet Mining.

Initially, the Corps granted PolyMet the Clean Water Act permit in 2019, stating compliance with all applicable federal laws and regulations. However, the permit was suspended in 2021 at the request of the Environmental Protection Agency.

The EPA, responding to a court ruling, needed to study the downstream effects on the reservation of the Fond du Lac Band and the Wisconsin waters of the St. Louis River, which form 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.

During the hearing, tribal officials informed federal authorities that the mine would violate their water quality regulations, which are more stringent than the state’s, especially regarding mercury and other pollutants.

The tribe argued that these higher standards are necessary to safeguard fish and wild rice, which are vital to their culture and diet. The EPA supported the tribe’s concerns and recommended that the Corps not reinstate the permit.

In their recent announcement, the Corps stated that “it was compelled to revoke the suspended permit due to the lack of adequate conditions in the existing permit to ensure compliance with the downstream water quality requirements of the tribe, as mandated by the Clean Water Act.”

NewRange Copper Nickel maintains its belief that the mine can responsibly and sustainably produce copper, nickel, and platinum-group metals needed for the clean energy economy, while generating jobs for northeastern Minnesota.

The company asserts that its proposed water treatment and management processes would result in a net reduction of sulfate and mercury levels in the St. Louis River system.

Republican U.S. Representative Peter Stauber, who represents the area, criticized the decision, arguing that it would increase America’s reliance on China for critical metals.

He accused the Biden Administration of undermining northern Minnesota and its way of life, claiming that the region could provide ethically and responsibly sourced critical minerals for domestic and global needs.

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