|Written by Mordecai Specktor,
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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
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.