Political Matters: Comment on PolyMet's plan

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Comment on PolyMet’s plan

You can download a copy of the new

environmental review of the proposed NorthMet copper-nickel mining

project at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources website

(dnr.state.mn.us ). It’s a big file, 136 megabytes and the DNR warns

that it “could take time to download.”

In late December, I talked with

Betsy Daub, policy director for Friends of the Boundary Waters

Wilderness (friends-bwca.org), a group that has been trying to raise

public awareness about the environmental dangers from sulfide mining.

I asked Daub if she had read every

word of the 2,169-page revised environmental impact statement (EIS).

“Not yet every word, but a good

portion of it already,” she replied, regarding the document

assembled by the Minnesota DNR, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and

the U.S. Forest Service.

As I noted in my column last month,

the government agencies and PolyMet Mining – the Toronto,

Canada-based firm that wants to mine for copper, nickel and precious

metals at a site near Babbit – went back to the drawing board,

after the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found the

October 2009 EIS deficient.

Is the refurbished 2013 EIS an

improvement over the old model?

“There are some areas of this new

design that are improvements,” Daub said, “but overall, what we

have is a mine plan that still leaves the Minnesota public with 500

years, at least, of mining pollution. And that doesn’t seem like a

good deal to us.”

Daub added, “We’re very

concerned that we haven’t yet seen a mine plan that is something

that makes sense, that protects Minnesota’s waters for the long

term, that does right by our precious water resources.”

She allowed that the new EIS

contains some “improvements, modifications such as putting the most

reactive waste rock back in the pits” and covering the debris with

water, in order to limit the chemical reaction that causes pollution.

The original plan would have left the sulfide ore waste on the

surface, she pointed out.

If you don’t have time to read the

entire supplemental draft EIS, there is an executive summary that run

58 pages. And the Minnesota Indian bands – Fond du Lac, Bois Forte

and Grand Portage – that are “cooperating agencies” in the

NorthMet environmental review process, along with the 1854 Treaty

Authority, have a 218-page document that expresses their concerns.

For example, the tribal cooperating agencies, through scientists with

the GreatLakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC), dispute

the information the SDEIS employs to calculate water flows from the

proposed mining site.

A 2012 letter from GLIFWC, which is

included in Appendix C of the SDEIS, argues that the “hydrologic

models for the PolyMet mine site have been calibrated to targets that

under-represent true baseflow. Models should be calibrated to a

strong set of observational data. Construction of the site’s basic

hydrologic model to unrealistically low baseflows has ramifications

for all the flow and contaminant modeling at the site.”

“The heart and soul of this mine

plan is this water modeling,” Daub said, regarding the tribal

contentions. “You never get a pure model that’s 100 percent

accurate – but what you hope you get is something that’s in the

ballpark, that at least gives you information that is useful.” She

noted that the tribal cooperating agencies and GLIFWC are concerned

that the assumptions underlying the waterflow modeling are

inaccurate.

Daub mentioned, as an example, that

the NorthMet SDEIS minimizes the off-site pollution resulting from

“cracks or fractures in the bedrock that underlies both the mine

site and the tailings basin.” The EPA challenged this aspect of the

environmental review, according to Daub.

The concern is that mine drainage

could seep into cracks in the bedrock and travel far from the mine

complex. Contaminated mine waste water could “percolate into

groundwater, and in that area of Minnesota, groundwater and surface

water readily mix … That can have human health impacts, wildlife

and aquatic species impacts.”

As the 2012 letter from GLIFWC

scientists concluded: “Modeling efforts that are based on faulty

initial assumptions and not on field observations will not be able to

reasonably predict impacts.”

There will be a series of public

hearings in January on the NorthMet supplemental draft EIS. The

hearings will be held in Duluth (Jan. 16), Aurora (Jan. 22) and St.

Paul (Jan. 28). Details are available on the Minnesota DNR website.

Comments also can be submitted by e-mail and letter through March 13.

“While this is a really dense

technical document, people can make an important contribution without

being a scientist or an expert,” Daub said, regarding the SDEIS.

“In fact, the DNR and the agencies need to hear from the public to

make the best possible decisions.”

Readers, it’s time to step.