ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) -- State pollution regulators on Thursday issued the last major state permits sought by the developers of the planned PolyMet copper-nickel mine in northeastern Minnesota, leaving only one major federal permit still pending.
The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency announced its approval of the air and water quality permits for the project and a certification that the company's plan to mitigate the mine's impact on wetlands will meet state water quality standards. The only remaining major permit is a wetlands permit from the Army Corps of Engineers.
"I am confident the requirements in these permits will protect the environment and human health over the long term," MPCA Commissioner John Linc Stine told reporters. "The project has received an unprecedented amount of public input" and "more than a decade of review."
PolyMet would be the state's first copper-nickel mine. Thursday's announcement follows a decision by the Department of Natural Resources last month to grant PolyMet several major permits, including the key one — a permit to mine.
Critics of the planned open-pit mine near Babbitt and processing plant near Hoyt Lakes cite the risks of acid mine drainage and concerns about the safety of the dam for its tailings basin. The vast but untapped reserves of buried copper, nickel and precious metals in northeastern Minnesota are locked up in sulfide minerals that can leach sulfuric acid and other pollutants when exposed to air and water.
Several environmental groups sued the DNR last month to challenge its permit decisions, saying the mine would threaten water quality downstream from Polymet as far as Lake Superior for centuries.
Polymet says it can operate without harming the environment while providing hundreds of jobs. President and CEO Jon Cherry said in a statement that Thursday's decision "represents the culmination of many years of hard work." He said the company expects to get the federal permit soon, and then it can start working to secure financing.
Company spokesman Bruce Richardson said the company hopes to begin major work in the 2019 construction season.
Altogether the DNR and MPCA have issued 17 permits and other approvals, though a few minor permits remain pending.
Kathryn Hoffman, CEO of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, one of the groups suing the DNR, denounced the permitting process as a "sham." She contended that PolyMet's financial documents show that the company ultimately wants to expand the mine beyond its current proposal, which would require further environmental reviews and permits. She said her group will take a "hard look" at the MPCA permits before deciding on its next step.
Paula Maccabee, an attorney for WaterLegacy, said it's now up to the courts to hold the state agencies accountable.
"I think it's embarrassing for us as Minnesotans and a very generous holiday gift for polluters," Maccabee said.