Political Matters: Next steps for PolyMet

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In March,

the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency weighed in on the

Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement on the PolyMet

sulfide mine, near Babbit, in northeastern Minnesota. The EPA gave

the copper-nickel mining project – which is called NorthMet – a

rating of “EC-2,” with the “EC” standing for “environmental

concerns.”

“The

rating means that federal regulators still have concerns about

potential environmental effects of the proposed $650 million project

and that they want to see more analysis and a clearer explanation of

how pollution problems will be resolved,” the Star Tribune noted,

regarding the EC-2 grade. “Specifically, they asked for more detail

on issues that have dogged the project for months: how long

contaminated water will have to be treated in future decades and how

PolyMet’s ‘financial assurance’ will protect the state against

unforeseen financial and environmental costs.”

The EPA’s

recent rating is an improvement over the failing grade the agency

gave the NorthMet project in October 2009, which sent PolyMet Mining,

a Canadian-based corporation, back to the drawing board. Four years

later, the SDEIS came out. In my February column, I reported on the

public hearing held in St. Paul (other hearings took place in Duluth

and Aurora) and noted that the Ojibwe bands up north have expressed

concerns with baseline data about water flow from the proposed mine

site. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources responded to the

tribal concerns, and stated that it is “reviewing new stream flow

data for the Partridge River.”

The Indian

bands – Fond du Lac, Bois Forte and Grand Portage – are

“cooperating agencies” in the PolyMet environmental review

process. The proposed sulfide mine and mill would be sited in the

1854 Treaty ceded territory and tribal members have reserved rights

to fish, hunt and gather in this vast landscape, as per the terms of

the treaty that their ancestors negotiated with the Great White

Father in Washington. One specific concern of the tribal cooperating

agencies is that acid mine drainage from the NorthMet project could

destroy what’s left of wild rice beds in northern Minnesota.

Getting

back to EPA’s EC-2 rating of NorthMet project, Jon Cherry,

PolyMet’s president and CEO, spun the decision this way: “This

rating demonstrates the significant improvements PolyMet has made to

the project in response to previous public and regulatory comments.”

In a statement posted on the PolyMet Web site, the company noted that

the EPA’s EC rating “is the same received by some other notable

Minnesota projects including the Central Corridor Light Rail Project

in theTwin Cities, the St. Croix River Crossing, and several other

major highway improvement and bridge projects.”

The 90-day

public comment period on the NorthMet Mining Project and Land

Exchange proposal ended in March. There were around 50,000 comments

made in all forms, according to Chris Niskanen, the DNR’s

communications director.

The

comments came in “emails, lots of written letters by snail mail,

also written comments submitted during the public meetings,”

Niskanen told me during a phone interview. “We had comments, of

course, during the public meetings, when people got up to speak. And

we had people comment at the public meeting to stenographers,” who

wrote down what folks had to say about the various aspects of the

environmental review.

Niskanen

mentioned that more than 90 percent of the comments received by the

DNR were generated from auto-fill letters on Web sites. Presumably,

both the PolyMet boosters and environmentalists opposed to the

sulfide mining scheme employed this method. Niskanen agreed that

these type of submissions tend to have a familiar look. “That

doesn’t necessarily mean that they are not substantive comments,”

Niskanen said.

He

explained that the DNR is now engaged in the process of batching the

comments around similar themes – “impacts to wetlands, mercury in

the air, mercury in the water, the water model issues,” etc. –

and getting everything into a digital database.

“And

then after we get through that, we have to decide what to do to

address some of the specific comments in the batches,” Niskanen

told The Circle. So, perhaps the DNR will “collect

additional data” or “re-do some of analysis, such as re-running a

model – not creating a new model – but re-running a model with

new information. Or we might possibly tell the proposer that we’re

going to modify the project.”

The

batching and sorting of comments by the DNR will take “many months”

– there’s no deadline. There will be a final environmental impact

statement on the NorthMet project and another public comment period

for that. NorthMet also has to obtain 21 permits from the DNR and

various other state and federal agencies.

At the end

of our phone chat, Niskanen said that he wanted to address the

assumption some people make “that it’s a foregone conclusion that

this project will get permits. That is not the case.”