ST. PAUL - The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources issued permits for PolyMet’s contentious copper-nickel mine in the Hoyt Lakes area, clearing a major hurdle for the decades-old mine proposal.

The DNR granted the permit to mine and 10 other approvals on Thursday, Nov. 1. The project still needs, at the very least, water and air quality permits form the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and a wetlands permit from the Army Corps of Engineers before construction can begin.

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“No project in the history of Minnesota has been more thoroughly evaluated,” said DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr in a statement. “This does not mean that the project will not have impacts, but it does mean that the project meets Minnesota’s regulatory standards for these permits.”

The open-pit mine, first officially proposed in 2004 though under consideration since 1999, would refurbish part of the LTV Steel plant and produce millions of tons of copper, nickel, cobalt and other metals annually. It is the first such mine to be approved in the state.

“Based on the DNR’s review, we are confident that the project can be built, operated, and reclaimed in compliance with Minnesota’s rigorous environmental standards, which are designed to protect human health and the environment,” Landwehr said.

PolyMet, a Canadian junior mining company, cheered the decision and said it expects to start work on the mine next year, which will take 24-30 months.

“We look forward to building and operating a modern mine and developing the minerals that sustain and enhance our modern world,” Jon Cherry, president and CEO, said in a statement. “Responsibly developing these strategic minerals in compliance with these permits while protecting Minnesota’s natural resources is our top priority as we move forward.”

PolyMet said it expects final permits from the MPCA and the Army Corps by the end of the year or just after.

Once operational, PolyMet expects to unearth 1.2 billion pounds of copper, 170 million pounds of nickel, 6.2 million pounds of cobalt and 1.6 million troy ounces of precious metals over the mine’s 20-year lifespan.

Opponents, who argue the project could send tainted runoff into the St. Louis River watershed and Lake Superior, slammed the state’s long-awaited decision.

“These permits should be reviewed by an independent administrative law judge to establish the facts before permit decisions are made. Contested case hearings are routine for large projects such as pipelines and power plants, and they’re regularly held for permit decisions large and small. It is special treatment for PolyMet to skip this vital step for the first copper-nickel mine to apply for permits in Minnesota,” Kathryn Hoffman, CEO of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, said in a statement Thursday afternoon

The DNR would order a predecisional contested case, which would require an administrative law judge to hold more hearings and review more evidence, testimony and cross examination if a project meets certain criteria - is there a material dispute of fact in dispute? Is that issue within the DNR's jurisdictional? Would the contested case process bring forward more information and insight?

In a news conference Thursday afternoon, Landwehr said the DNR determined that criteria was not met.

“Our careful analysis of those conditions concluded that none of those met the three conditions in state statute so we declined to convene a contested case hearing,” Landwehr said.

The permit to mine requires PolyMet to fund a financial assurance package to the DNR so the state can reclaim and close the mine and plant sites if PolyMet closed unexpectedly.

PolyMet posted $74 million in financial assurance prior to its permit to mine, which is expected to grow to $588 million when mining begins and exceed $1 billion at peak mining, according to the DNR.

DNR assistant commissioner Barb Naramore said those figures will be reevaluated each year.

“While the initial total of $74 million is what was required today at permit issuance, we will be looking annually and adjusting that number,” Naramore said during the press conference.

Duluth For Clean Water and other groups promised to fight the decision.

“The permits issued today do not change our approach, which is to tell the truth and demand that regulators and politicians protect Minnesota,” the group said in a statement. “We will continue to fight this reckless proposal with our allies, including by supporting needed legal challenges. Minnesota cannot afford this mine.”

Supporters say the project will provide more than 300 jobs on the Iron Range and move the area’s economy away from iron ore dependence.

“This decision represents a commitment to invest nearly $1 billion in the state’s emerging nonferrous industry, bringing new wealth to the state and furthers Minnesota’s global position as a leading minerals producer, supplying critical minerals to our economy,” said Doug Loon, Minnesota Chamber of Commerce president and Jobs for Minnesotans board member.

While PolyMet is the first copper-nickel mine to receive a permit in the state, it could be the first of several copper-nickel mines in northern Minnesota, with the Twin Metals project near Ely, the Teck project near Babbitt and the Kennecott project near Tamarack in Aitkin County all in early stages. AngloGold Ashanti Minnesota and Encampment Minerals have also conducted several exploratory borings in the state.

Frank Ongaro, executive director of Mining-Minnesota, a copper-nickel mining advocacy group, said while two projects are the same, he hopes Minnesota regulators will approve the next projects faster.

“This demonstrates that Minnesota can permit a nonferrous operation and come to a permit to mine,” Ongaro said. “This sends a tremendous message to the rest of the industry across the world that are looking at investing in Minnesota mineral development.”