Political Matters: Next steps for PolyMet
Friday, April 04 2014
Written by Mordecai Specktor,
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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.”

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