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DNR releases PolyMet permit to mine

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources this morning released the long-awaited draft permit-to-mine for the proposed PolyMet copper-nickel project between Hoyt Lakes and Babbitt.

The draft permit is now open for public review, comments and objections for 60 days, with public hearings set for February in Aurora and Duluth, before the DNR could make the permit final.

Legal ads heralding the draft permit are set to run in the News Tribune and other newspapers starting Saturday.

The permit-to-mine is considered the most important of the 23 state and federal permits the company needs to start work on Minnesota's first-ever copper-nickel mine. The permit lays out details of how the company will construct, operate and close the project — estimated at $650 million with 300 employees — and then treat wastewater leaving the site to avoid release of potentially toxic mine wastewater, both during operations and for possibly decades after.

Release of the draft permit signals the DNR is mostly satisfied with the company's mining plan.

The permit also will include details of how much money the company will need to keep on hand and available to the state to spend to close and rehabilitate the site even if PolyMet goes bankrupt. That amount will start at $75 million during the first year of construction, ramp up to $544 million during the first year of mining and peak at more than $1.1 billion in the 11th year, considered the peak year for exposure to any problems.

The financial assurance package will also include requirements for PolyMet to guarantee payment of liability insurance premiums to cover catastrophes not expected during normal mining operations or after the mine closes.

Critics of the PolyMet project say it stands too great a chance of releasing tainted mine wastewater into the St. Louis River ecosystem. They are expected to call for a contested case hearing before a state administrative law judge. DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr will make the decision on whether those hearings are necessary after the public input process concludes. Opponents of the project can appeal his decision to the Minnesota Court of Appeals.

Once permits are granted it will take PolyMet nearly two years to build the mine and refurbish the long-idled LTV Steel taconite plant to process the copper-bearing ore. The company hopes to be mining copper by late 2020.