If Minnesota winds up approving PolyMet Mining’s proposal for a copper-nickel mine on the Iron Range, state regulators should demand a rigorous system of community oversight like the one Michigan has imposed on a similar but smaller mine near Lake Superior, Gov. Mark Dayton said Friday.
Returning from a quick tour of the year-old Eagle Mine near Marquette, Mich., Dayton told reporters he was impressed by Michigan’s decision to require the mine’s owner to pay $300,000 annually into an independent oversight fund. The fund is operated by a foundation made up of citizens who live in the area, and the foundation, in turn, hires experts to independently test water around the mine and monitor the operations.
The owner of Eagle Mine and Michigan’s natural resource agency provide additional screening to protect the environment, public health and worker safety.
“It’s very different from anything I’ve seen in Minnesota,” Dayton said in a news conference on arriving at St. Paul Downtown Airport.
Dayton was accompanied by Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Commissioner John Linc Stine, who said they were equally impressed.
Landwehr and Stine said Eagle Mine’s owner cooperated with the state’s insistence on close community relations as a way to build public acceptance and trust. Besides the independent water monitoring, the company must participate in regular, open-ended community meetings, they said.
“It’s an exceptionally good practice,” Stine said.
In Michigan’s meticulous approach, even small details stood out, the three Minnesota officials said. Dayton noticed that all trucks hauling ore from Eagle Mine were painted with a hot-line number for any complaints about the trucking.
Eagle Mine and the proposed PolyMet mine are different in many ways. Most notably, Eagle is an underground mine and 100 times smaller than what PolyMet has proposed. But Dayton said Minnesota should look closely at Michigan’s tightly written regulations and fill in any “gaps” in Minnesota’s existing statutes.
“If [PolyMet] were to go forward, how you start it is crucially important,” the governor said.
A 10-year environmental review of Minnesota’s first proposed copper-nickel mine is nearing completion and is now primarily in the hands of Dayton, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Forest Service. They expect to publish the project’s final environmental impact statement within the first 15 days of November, Landwehr said. Then the document will stand for public comment before the DNR decides early next year, possibly in February, if it is adequate.
Next, PolyMet would apply for a crucial “permit to mine” from the DNR, along with some 20 other local, state and federal approvals or permits. State officials have said a final mining permit could not be expected before late 2016.
At stake is a mining operation that could bring several hundred jobs to the Iron Range, where living-wage jobs have grown scarce, but also pose environmental risks from “hard rock” mining that Minnesota has not confronted before.