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Minnesota court sends PolyMet air permit case back to agency

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FILE - In this Feb. 10, 2016, file photo is a former iron ore processing plant near Hoyt Lakes, Minn., that would become part of a proposed PolyMet copper-nickel mine. Lawyers for the proposed PolyMet copper-nickel mine and state regulators urged the Minnesota Supreme Court on Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020, to defer to the judgement of the state Department of Natural Resources and reinstate three critical permits for the project. (AP Photo/Jim Mone, File)

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The proposed PolyMet copper-nickel mine in northern Minnesota encountered a setback Monday when the state Court of Appeals ordered regulators to revisit a critical air emissions permit given to the project.

The court ruled that the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency hadn’t sufficiently justified granting the permit after opponents raised allegations that PolyMet was planning a much larger mine, which will be located about 12 miles south of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Environmental groups and a Native American tribe pointed to a report that PolyMet filed with Canadian regulators that suggested PolyMet was considering expanding the mine to four times the size that the air permit would allow.

The appeals court last year said the MPCA hadn’t adequately evaluated whether the air permit understated the company’s real plans, only to have that ruling overturned by the Minnesota Supreme Court. The high court ruled in February that the MPCA wasn’t required by federal law to investigate the allegations of “sham permitting.”

The Supreme Court sent the case back to the Court of Appeals to consider whether the agency correctly concluded that PolyMet would comply with all terms of the permit, and whether PolyMet had failed to fully disclose all relevant facts or submitted false or misleading information to the agency.

Monday’s ruling said the MPCA “has not adequately explained the reasons for its conclusions” and said that would be sufficient grounds to reverse the permit. But the court instead sent it back to the MPCA for reconsideration.

The open pit mine and processing plant near Babbitt and Hoyt Lakes would be Minnesota’s first copper-nickel mine. Environmentalists have fought the project because of the potential for acid mine drainage upstream from Lake Superior. The opponents are a coalition of groups led by the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy plus the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

The case is one of several legal challenges still making their way through the courts and regulatory agencies at the state and federal level. The Minnesota Supreme Court in April affirmed the Court of Appeals’ reversal of PolyMet’s critical “permit to mine” and sent that case back to the state Department of Natural Resources for more proceedings.