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Environmental groups planning lawsuit to stop PolyMet mine

DULUTH — Two environmental groups on Tuesday said they will file suit in federal district court to stop the proposed PolyMet copper-nickel mine near Hoyt Lakes, Minn., a long-expected move that would mark the first legal action to stop the project.

The Center for Biological Diversity and Earthworks filed a formal “60-day notice of intent” to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Forest Service under the Endangered Species Act for their approval of the PolyMet project in the Superior National Forest in the northeastern part of the state.

That approval became final Monday when the government announced it had approved a land trade that gave PolyMet access to 6,650 acres at the mine site. The Fish and Wildlife Service issued its “biological opinion” on the mine proposal in February 2016, essentially finding no significant impact.

If the agencies don’t reverse their decisions within the 60-day period, the suit would be formally entered in court.

The environmental groups planning the lawsuit said the open-pit mine would destroy important habitat for the gray wolf and Canada lynx, both listed as “threatened” with extinction under the Endangered Species Act.

“A century of iron ore mining has already fragmented habitat for wolves and lynx in this region, so these imperiled species can’t tolerate a new wave of open-pit copper mining,” said Marc Fink of Duluth, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, in a statement announcing the suit. “The Forest Service is trying to wash its hands of this terrible project through a land exchange with PolyMet, but the impacts on wolves and lynx are just too severe to allow this to proceed.”

The groups note that federal law prohibits open-pit mining on some classifications of land in the Superior National Forest and that the project skirted that restriction by removing the land from Forest Service ownership via the land swap.

PolyMet supporters say the all-new kind of mining will employ 300 people and pump $550 million into the regional economy each year, a welcome diversification in an area hard-hit by the cyclical iron ore industry.

Frank Ongaro, executive director of Mining Minnesota, the copper industry trade group, said the Fish and Wildlife Service already looked at PolyMet’s impact on habitat for endangered species “and they found no significant impact.”

The pending lawsuit is “not surprising,” Ongaro said. “We have a comprehensive (environmental review) process in place, a process that these groups helped create. Now, they don’t like the results, that a company can meet stringent state and federal standards, so they plan on filing a lawsuit.”

PolyMet officials released a statement Tuesday saying that the biological impact findings of the Fish and Wildlife Service in 2016 “fully addresses the potential impacts and mitigation to threatened and endangered species. That opinion is based on extensive and thorough study and analysis performed independently by state and federal regulators and their contractors during a 10-year environmental review process that both the state of Minnesota and the U.S. Forest Service have validated.”

Critics say the potential for polluted runoff from the site is too great and that the potential environmental harm isn't worth the risk — especially the risk of acidic runoff when sulfur-bearing rock is exposed to air and water, a situation unique to copper mining.

The issue of habitat loss had not been extensively raised through the environmental review process, except for the loss of wetlands at the proposed mine site.

Even after Monday’s land swap announcement, PolyMet still must secure more than 20 state and federal permits for the mine, with those expected later this year.

PolyMet's Environmental Impact Statement was approved in 2015 by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources after a nearly 10-year environmental review period that included a do-over after the initial review was deemed inadequate by federal regulators.

Toronto-based PolyMet, which is one-third owned by Swiss commodities giant Glencore, is a so-called “Canadian junior” mining company, and the Hoyt Lakes mine is the only project it has. The company will need to raise more than half a billion dollars from investors and lenders to actually build out the mine, with financing likely to come after permits are approved.

If permits are issued, construction is expected to take about two years.

“The U.S. Forest Service just gave a foreign mining company part of our national forests to build a mine in one of the worst possible places for one — the headwaters of Lake Superior,” said Lori Andresen of Duluth, a member of Earthworks. “PolyMet's proposal will destroy critical habitats for lynx and wolves, and the science shows that these sulfide mines always pollute the water — even the state of Minnesota has acknowledged pollution is inevitable. Great Lakes communities and endangered species don't want and don't deserve the fragmentation and toxic sulfide mine waste PolyMet's mine will generate.”

The groups say the the Endangered Species Act requires federal agencies to ensure that proposed actions will not destroy or adversely modify critical habitat for threatened and endangered species.

Minnesota is home to about 250 lynx and about 2,200 wolves.