State releases long-awaited impact statement for PolyMet mine, opens public comment period

The DNR released forecast of proposed copper mine’s potential impact on northeast Minnesota.

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Tom Landwehr, DNR commissioner. On Friday, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources released its Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement on PolyMet Mining Inc.'s NorthMet mine project in northeastern Minnesota.

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State regulators unveiled their forecast Friday of the way Minnesota’s first copper mine would affect the air, water and lives of people in northeastern Minnesota, a document that is expected to escalate an already polarizing debate about what could be a new era of mining in the most beautiful and untouched part of the state.

The release of the environmental impact statement, a dense, 2,200-page document that took five years and cost $22 million, sets the stage for a 90-day public comment period starting Dec. 14 and, potentially, for a much larger debate over Minnesota’s future.

PolyMet Mining Corp., which promises a $650 million investment and 300 to 360 jobs over 20 years, is only the first of many companies lining up to tap one of the world’s largest untouched deposits of copper, nickel and other precious metals lying beneath the forests and lakes of northeast Minnesota. Many on both sides of the issue say the debate in the coming months, which is expected to generate tens of thousands of public comments, will influence how and whether copper mining in the state becomes a reality.

The state’s lead regulator, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), took the unusual step of holding a news conference Friday to explain the project and present two fat volumes of paper that detail the environmental risks, how the company would minimize them, and what the economic impact of the project would be. The agency also announced three public hearings — in Duluth on Jan. 16, Aurora on Jan. 22 and St. Paul on Jan. 28.

Sometime next year, the DNR will issue a final environmental impact statement that could form the basis for planning the mine and issuing state permits if the project goes forward.

“We are asking Minnesotans to collectively and through their organizations look at this document and give us your insights,” said DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr.

Those on both sides of the issue expressed relief that the formal public discussion would finally begin.

“I think that this is a healthy debate,” said Jon Cherry, PolyMet’s chief executive officer. “It’s important for people to express their opinions.”

“It is really the main part in this process where the people of Minnesota can look at what’s being proposed and decide if it passes the smell test,” said Paul Austin, executive director of Conservation Minnesota, one of the state’s environmental advocacy groups that has been critical of the mining plans.

Gov. Mark Dayton, who may have to find a political balance between the demands of environmentalists and those of the labor movement, said he’s paying attention as well.

“I’ve said I’m going to remain undecided until all the facts are known and everything is put forth and go from there,” he said earlier this week.

Much of the debate is already underway, with environmental groups and pro-mining interests already having launched statewide campaigns to sway public opinion.

Officials behind Mining Truth, the environmentalist campaign, say that some 23,000 people across the state have already sent messages expressing their concerns to Dayton.

Also on Friday, the recently formed Jobs for Minnesotans, a group of companies and unions that claims 55,000 members, issued a release stating that copper-nickel mining will revitalize the Iron Range economy.

Cleanups in other states

Copper-nickel mines have a long legacy of pollution in other states, primarily in the West, and taxpayers are spending millions of dollars to clean up streams and rivers at other sites across the country.

Unlike taconite that has long been mined on the Iron Range, the precious metals of hard-rock mining are found in ore that contains sulfites. When exposed to air and water, sulfites can create acid drainage that leaches heavy metals and mercury from rock, and the acidity destroys aquatic life.

State and company officials said that the PolyMet mine, as planned, would not produce acid drainage and that new technologies can protect the region’s ecology.

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    PolyMet Mining Corp., which promises a $650 million investment and 300 to 360 jobs over 20 years, is only the first of many companies lining up to tap one of...

  • Steve Colvin of the DNR, who is in charge of the impact analysis, said issues of disagreement over the impact of the proposed PolyMet mine are laid out in the 2,200-page report.

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