Protesters oppose Minnesota mine at PolyMet AGM in Toronto

Human rights and environmental groups protested at the PolyMet annual general meeting over a proposed copper-nickel mine recently approved in Minnesota for a watershed near the Canadian border.

Groups say Canadian-owned copper-nickel mine is threat to water flowing into Lake Superior watershed

Protesters from Duluth for Clean Water, Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, Amnesty International and the Mining Injustice Solidarity Network outside of the PolyMet shareholders meeting. (Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy)

Human rights and environmental groups protested at the PolyMet annual general meeting Wednesday over a proposed copper-nickel mine recently approved in Minnesota, about 50 kilometres from the Canadian border.

Ottawa-based PolyMet has recently obtained final state permits to move ahead with construction of the NorthMet mining complex, which would have three new open pits, waste rock heaps, and a permanent tailings waste dump on a site in the St. Louis River watershed which drains into Lake Superior.

The activists are concerned over the risk of tailings spills which could harm a sensitive watershed, kill fish and affect Indigenous wild rice beds. Representatives from Amnesty International Canada are framing it as a rights issue, pointing to the Mount Polley mine disaster in B.C. when a dam failure sent toxic tailings into a watershed used by Indigenous people.

About 20 people protested outside the PolyMet AGM in Toronto and then walked to the Toronto Stock Exchange to register their opposition. Aaron Klemz, spokesperson for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, said they aimed to show financial regulators and shareholders that they are being presented with a case for the mine that doesn't fit with the facts.

The PolyMet mine would be located on what is now Superior National Forest land and would require a land exchange of 2,700 hectares of lands on which First Nations people have rights to hunt, fish and gather under reserve treaties.

"It's a human rights issue in that these Indigenous communities downstream have not given their consent for the mine development," Klemz told CBC News.

A group called WaterLegacy representing the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa has been battling the project with the support of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. The centre is also opposing Chilean company Antofagasta's copper mine recently approved by the U.S. government for a site near the Boundary Waters, which border on Ontario's Quetico Park.

They were able to obtain an Environmental Protection Agency memo that exposed EPA doubts about environmental safety that was not presented at public hearings.

Court says it will review state regulator process

In a ruling Tuesday, the state Court of Appeals said a district court in Minnesota must determine if state environmental regulators improperly sought to suppress the federal agency's serious concerns about the pollution risks arising from the proposed mine.

The mine development is near peat bogs and the St. Louis River watershed, which drains into Lake Superior and is a source of drinking water. (WaterLegacy)

The St. Paul-based Ramsey County District Court must hold a hearing "as soon as practicable" on the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency's dealings with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the issuance of a major water permit for the PolyMet mine. It must report back with findings of fact, the appeals court said.

An email sent by a top official at the Minnesota agency to her counterparts at the EPA asked them not to file their written comments about the permit during the state agency's public comment period on PolyMet's application. Opponents of the PolyMet project say the state agency's request kept the EPA officials' criticisms of the permit off the public record.

The email was leaked last week by the union that represents EPA career staffers and by WaterLegacy, which obtained it under a freedom of information request.

Instead of filing comments in writing, EPA officials read them to MPCA officials over the phone. 

Courts to ensure permit process 'has integrity'

"We conclude that WL has provided substantial evidence of procedural irregularities not shown in the administrative record, and thus that it is appropriate to transfer this matter to district court for a hearing and determination of the alleged irregularities," the order said.

WaterLegacy attorney Paula Maccabee pointed out that the district court has the power to issue subpoenas, place people under oath and allow lawyers to question witnesses.

"What this means is the courts are making sure that the permitting process has integrity," Maccabee said. "And there will be an opportunity for the district court to find out the truth, and make sure the public knows the truth, and make sure that Minnesota doesn't issue PolyMet a weak permit that fails to protect the environment and human health."

Maccabee said she and other lawyers involved in the case would ask Gov. Tim Walz and MPCA Commissioner Laura Bishop to put PolyMet's water permit on hold pending the court's findings.

An MPCA spokesman did not immediately return a message seeking comment on the order. The agency has previously defended its permitting process as rigorous and said that it made "substantive changes" to the draft permit in response to EPA officials' concerns. EPA spokesman Michael Abboud concurred earlier this month, saying "the permit was changed to reflect many of EPA's recommendations" following discussions between the two agencies.

PolyMet spokesman Bruce Richardson said the company views Tuesday's order as procedural to make sure that the record is clear before the Court of Appeals addresses broader challenges to the permit.

"Because the permit meets all the requirements of the law, we believe the permit, as issued, will be upheld," he said.

The EPA's inspector general's office said earlier this month that it had opened an investigation into whether agency officials properly followed the appropriate regulations during the permit review process.

Needs $950M in construction financing

PolyMet is now working to raise around $950 million in construction financing. CEO Jon Cherry told the Star Tribune for an interview published Tuesday that he's confident the planned mine near Babbitt and processing plant near Hoyt Lakes will move forward despite concerns over the permit. PolyMet hopes to begin major construction next year with an eye toward becoming operational in 2023.

"It's going to happen," Cherry said. "It is so rare to get a fully permitted mine at this time in the United States."

Switzerland-based global mining giant Glencore AG holds a 29 per cent stake in PolyMet, but Cherry said its final share may grow depending on how the financing is structured.

With files from the Associated Press