Contrary to Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Commissioner Tom Landwehr’s Star Tribune commentary (“Rest assured, DNR is rigorous on PolyMet,” April 19), the DNR’s insider review of scientific and factual objections to the proposed PolyMet NorthMet copper-nickel sulfide mine is not a “neutral” process.
If there’s one thing PolyMet’s passionate proponents and opponents should agree on, it is that a great deal of political pressure has been placed on Minnesota regulatory agencies to approve the PolyMet sulfide mine project. Sound science often gets thrown out the window when it interferes with political pressure to approve something.
It is true that the DNR has received more than 100,000 comments from citizens, as well as criticisms from scientists, objections from conservation groups and major differences of opinion from cooperating tribal agencies. During the environmental review process, the DNR put these diverse views into spreadsheets and paid consultants to write a series of dismissive responses. The DNR certainly mimed consideration of public comments.
But, from our perspective, what the DNR has not done to this day is to take these powerful criticisms of the PolyMet project seriously.
When my daughter (now a professional in her 30s) was a toddler, she consistently failed to register any change in her behavior when adults set limits or gave instructions. An ear, nose and throat specialist conducted a full range of clinical tests and gave us the diagnosis. Our toddler was not “hard of hearing.” She was “hard of listening.”
The DNR does not seem to listen, even when its own scientists, engineers and consultants raise legitimate, science-based concerns about the safety and design of the PolyMet project.
Here are just a few of the factual disputes cited in objections to the PolyMet draft permit to mine and requests for a contested case hearing:
• PolyMet’s wet slurry tailings storage would not meet minimum safety requirements to prevent catastrophic tailings dam failure and contamination of downstream waters.
• PolyMet’s unlined permanent tailings waste and waste rock storage facilities would fail to capture water draining from reactive wastes and pollute both surface water and groundwater.
• PolyMet’s highly concentrated hydrometallurgical waste facility would be located on wetlands with an unstable foundation, threatening liner failure and release of mercury and other toxic pollutants.
• PolyMet would not provide enough insurance to compensate downstream property owners for environmental damages or adequate financial assurance to protect Minnesota taxpayers from paying long-term costs for pollution and treatment.
To be fair, the DNR has legal reasons to be “hard of listening.” Minnesota law requires the DNR to promote mineral exploration and mining, often at cross-purposes with its obligations to protect our water, fish and game. This fundamental conflict of interest prevents the DNR from being a truly neutral arbiter. As Upton Sinclair famously said, “it is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”
According to polls, a majority of Minnesotans are concerned that the PolyMet sulfide mine threatens clean water in Minnesota’s Lake Superior Basin and the health, safety and well-being of downstream communities. Yet, unless there is an impartial review of the facts by an administrative law judge at a contested case hearing, it’s likely that the DNR will go through the motions of deliberation and then, once again, rubber-stamp whatever cheap, dirty and risky technology PolyMet puts forward.
The citizens of Minnesota deserve an opportunity to speak to someone without a conflict of interest who will actually listen. We deserve a contested case hearing before an administrative law judge.
Paula Maccabee is advocacy director and counsel for WaterLegacy.