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MN: Environmental groups planning lawsuit to stop PolyMet mine

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, a long-expected move that would mark the first legal action to stop the project.

The Center for Biological Diversity and Earthworks filed a “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 Northeastern Minnesota.

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.

The environmental groups who announced plans to file the lawsuit say 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. “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.”

PolyMet and other mining industry officials did not immediately respond to a request to comment on the pending lawsuit.

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.

But 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 raised extensively through the environmental review process.

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, a Duluth 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.