Last week, PolyMet CEO Jon Cherry showed up in Detroit at an electric vehicle (EV) battery show to complain that home EV batteries are stalled by the failure to build PolyMet’s controversial sulfide mine. A day earlier, former Minnesota Pollution Control Agency legislative director Ron Way said in a Tribune of the Stars comment that the PolyMet/Glencore copper-nickel sulphide ore mine should be approved to solve the climate crisis.
There is only one problem with these arguments. Facts.
PolyMet’s permits conflict with the law. PolyMet is a risky sulfide mine and PolyMet would harm rather than help Minnesota reverse the climate crisis.
First, permits for the PolyMet sulfide mine are not blocked by “procedural” challenges, as PolyMet proponents frequently claim. These flawed permits were canceled because one court after another found that PolyMet and the approving agencies failed to follow the law. PolyMet’s state operating license was canceled because state law prohibits an indefinite “permanent license” and because there was no evidence that PolyMet would meet legal requirements to control drainage acid mine after mine closure.
PolyMet’s state water pollution permit was revoked for failing to assess or limit contaminated seepage into groundwater as required by federal water quality law. And PolyMet’s federal wetland destruction permit was suspended because the Trump administration failed to provide legally mandated notice to the Fond du Lac Band downstream of Lake Superior Chippewa that the PolyMet permit could harm its reserve waters. The United States Environmental Protection Agency has since determined that the PolyMet project will be affect Reserve waters in violation of the Clean Water Act. The US Army Corps is currently reviewing this evidence.
Not surprisingly, PolyMet’s permits ran into legal issues. There is a broad consensus that sulphide ore mining has a dismal record in the United States as well as across the world. Mines of copper, nickel, cobalt and other sulfide ores release toxins into the environment and have a poor track record of mine closures while forcing taxpayers into costly cleanups. PolyMet is an example of the least expensive and riskiest mining design to maximize profits at the expense of our environment.
After repeated catastrophic failures, including the collapse of the Brumadinho tailings dam in Brazil, which killed 270 people, upstream dams were 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 reckless design.
PolyMet wet slurry storage for reactive tailings without dewatering, liners or engineered covers also challenges prudent industry practice. PolyMet’s low-cost tailings storage method ensures the release of toxins into the environment and increases the risk of tailings dam collapse.
Minnesota agencies didn’t just approve PolyMet’s outdated and risky designs. They did not require Glencore – the majority owner of PolyMet – to be named on the permits. In the event of a problem, PolyMet will have no other asset than a contaminated mine. Glencore, the $200 billion multinational corporation that enjoys all of PolyMet’s profits, would walk away unscathed, leaving Minnesotans to hold their leaky bag.
There is no fact to support the theory that the PolyMet sulfide mine would help reverse climate change. Rather 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 a single mine that destroyed 1,000 acres of peatland would increase our state’s carbon footprint by 2%.
During its 20-year mining plan, PolyMet would produce 15.8 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent pollution, more than 10 million tonnes from burning fossil fuels. Recycling copper, on the other hand, would save 85% of the fossil energy used in copper mining.
PolyMet’s licensing records – nearly a million pages of documents – contain no facts to suggest that PolyMet would supply “Buy American” electric vehicle metals. Glencore, which is based in Switzerland, controls all the products that will be produced from the PolyMet mine. Glencore has well-known contracts to supply EV metals to China.
Climate sustainability is vital. But facts matter. Whatever policy choices are most effective in preventing climate change, approval of the PolyMet/Glencore sulphide mine is not one of them. There’s no tooth fairy, and it’s time to unplug PolyMet.
Paula G. Maccabee is the advocacy director and attorney for WaterLegacy, a Minnesota-based nonprofit organization created to protect Minnesota’s freshwater and the communities that depend on it.
More information available at https://waterlegacy.org/.