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PolyMet and Tribal Concerns
Thursday, May 05 2016
 
Written by Mordecai Specktor,
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As I reported in my April column, Gov. Mark Dayton recently instructed the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) not to authorize any new lease agreements for mining on state lands with Twin Metals Minnesota. Twin Metals has been moving forward on a $2.8 billion underground copper-nickel mine near Birch Lake in northeastern Minnesota.

Dayton expressed concern that mining activities might pollute lakes in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW), which he called “a crown jewel in Minnesota and a national treasure.”

Dayton’s move followed the DNR’s decision that the final environmental impact statement (EIS) for Polymet’s proposed copper-nickel mine near Babbit was adequate, and that project could move into the permitting phase. I have written numerous columns about the potentially catastrophic environmental impacts from sulfide mining in Minnesota’s Arrowhead region.

I have noted that the Ojibwe bands (Fond du Lac, Bois Forte and Grand Portage), which retain hunting, fishing and gathering rights in the 1854 Treaty Ceded Territory, have been raising objections to the PolyMet mining scheme for years.

How can Minnesota sign off on PolyMet’s mine and then object to the Twin Metals project? Regarding Dayton’s decision not to authorize state mineral leases to Twin Metals, Nancy Schuldt, the water protection coordinator for the Fond du Lac Band, said that action was “at least, a step the governor could take to help protect important natural and cultural resources in the 1854 ceded territory, because there is a quite a lot of overlap between the Superior National Forest and the 1854 ceded territory.”

However, Schuldt remains troubled by “the comments that have been made about how we need to protect this ‘jewel’ of the Boundary Waters, as this federally-protected protected wilderness, and somehow it’s okay to let PolyMet destroy the Lake Superior Basin? I’m not sure I understand… that position, which seems to be what the governor is insinuating: that PolyMet’s one thing, but we can’t let sulfide mining destroy the Boundary Waters. I have a hard time with that.”

Incredibly, as Schuldt mentioned, “the governor has not met with the tribes at all on this issue, on either the Twin Metals leases or the PolyMet project.”

On this point, I called Dayton’s press secretary, Matt Swenson. “I do know that the DNR commissioner and all the folks who are working on the PolyMet issue communicate regularly with the tribes, and have met with them numerous times,” Swenson responded. “I would have to go back and check as to whether the governor has met with them.”

Swenson called me back after consulting with Dayton’s scheduler. There have been no meetings between the governor and Ojibwe band officials about copper-nickel mining. As far as the DNR’s decision about the adequacy of the PolyMet environmental review, Nancy Schuldt said that tribal officials determined that “it would not be particularly strategic” to appeal the DNR decision, because such a challenge “would be heard in a state court, and we’re not really interested in trying to argue with the state over the adequacy of the EIS, when they haven’t listened to us for the last eight years.”

Instead, the tribal “cooperating agencies” in the EIS process have formally objected to the U.S. Forest Service’s Record of Decision (ROD) approving the land exchange, which is a crucial part of PolyMet’s NorthMet project.

PolyMet would get access to land in the Superior National Forest for its open pit mine, and provide other land in exchange. Schuldt said that tribal officials “were a little disturbed” that the Forest Service rushed its draft ROD on the land exchange, and published it before the final EIS on the PolyMet mine was approved by the DNR.

The tribes also are meeting with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which must decide on whether or not to issue a wetland permit for the PolyMet mine. PolyMet’s project involves “almost a thousand acres of direct wetland impact and untold thousands of acres of indirect wetland impacts that have not had mitigation proposed for them,” said Schuldt, who added that issuing a permit to allow “this much wetland destruction” would be unprecedented in the lower 48 states.

Schuldt also hipped me to Water Legacy’s petition last summer to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which calls for a review of Minnesota’s negligent actions vis-à-vis the federal Clean Water Act. In short, some 25 mining facilities in state are operating with expired permits, imperiling our water resources, wild rice, etc.

In early April, the EPA launched an investigation pursuant to Water Legacy’s petition, and requested permit files from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency on all of the mining operations. The EPA investigation will be the subject of a future Political Matters column.


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