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Evaluate and speak up about PolyMet mining project

From Leo Babeu,Two Harbors

There is only one week left for concerned citizens to comment on the mining plan for Polymet’s NorthMet Mine, also known as the Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement. Despite many stories referencing the controversial nature of the project, there has been far too little discussion of what’s specifically at risk and the corporate back story of this project in our local and state print, radio, and other media. Citizens advocacy groups with strong environmental arguments opposing this mine have been vastly outspent by the corporation, and most legislators serving folks in northern Minnesota have not done us good service by looking at this development with uncritical, wishful thinking. They have generally asserted that there is convincing scientific evidence that this will be the first clean sulfide mine ever to be operated and closed in a water-rich environment.

When I attended the public hearing held in Aurora in January, it was obvious that civic boosters and Polymet Corporation had targeted local citizens with their marketing efforts, convincing them that the proposed 20 years of mining would bring a couple hundred jobs and the clean production of valuable copper to Minnesota. Few folks seemed to realize that we’d be shipping copper/nickel concentrates to foreign plants where the value added processing would produce the actual metal stock. No one mentioned that these jobs would not be union jobs, and would be subject to indefinite lay-offs whenever the “clean” Minnesota copper became too expensive to produce relative to the dirtier mines elsewhere. No one seemed alarmed about the fact that this Canadian corporation, funded by the largest multinational commodities firm, Glencore, has assured that the first eight years of copper production from this site is destined for commodities storehouses in China and will not be used to meet domestic needs. There was little concern that the SDEIS provides no detailed definition of what financial assurance funds will be placed in trust to ensure that water flowing from the waste piles and tailings ponds will be treated and maintained for the required hundreds of years, and that contamination episodes can be cleaned up in the highly predictable event that the company goes out of business soon after closure.

The original Draft Environmental Impact Statement submitted in 2009 was reviewed in 2010 by the USEPA for all the state and federal stakeholders—the Army Corps, the US Forest Service, the Minnesota DNR, the MPCA, and three bands of Lake Superior Chippewa. EPA found that DEIS to be a wholly inadequate report with incomplete analysis, and specifically concluded “the project will result in unacceptable and long-term water quality impacts, which exceed water quality standards, releasing unmitigated wastewater discharges to water bodies (during operation and in the post-closure period), and increasing mercury loadings into the Lake Superior watershed”.

The SDEIS released four years later doesn’t answer the EPA’s criticisms adequately. Serious new deficiencies have been found but are left to be resolved later. The hydrologic model for the water moving through the mining and processing site dramatically underestimates the volume of water passing through, and the rate it moves across and under the waste containment sites. Thus, this crucial predictive tool greatly understates the risk of significant acid rock drainage impacts to surrounding wetlands, ground water, the Partridge and St.Louis Rivers, and ultimately Lake Superior. The primary difference in this round of impact statement review is the sheer mountain of disparate data and sweeping assumptions referenced to present the case that this virtually impossible task of waste materials handling and perpetual treatment will work. The advocates for Polymet’s copper sulfide mine have many well intentioned Minnesotans thinking that this tweaked version of the project is improved enough to assure that the mine’s waste and the laws and variable of nature can now be managed so as to avoid major pollution for the indefinite future, beyond a time when our present regulatory systems may even be functioning.

The comment period has been too short and is almost over. It is crucial that all of us—the public and our committed public servants in the state’s environmental review process—pay attention to what the mining corporation has clarified and what’s left unaddressed in the new 2,169 page SDEIS. Polymet has not convincingly demonstrated their ability to operate and close this mine without saddling the Minnesota taxpayers with extraordinary cleanup costs and the citizens of northeastern Minnesota with harm to our water resources and the real risk of negative impacts on human health. Under our state’s rules, regulators don’t allow citizens to participate in the later stages when the amount of a financial assurance bond will be determined. All the states which have suffered acid mine drainage from sulfide mines have underestimated the pollution that has been generated and have escrowed funds grossly inadequate to the task. Minnesota’s rules make such a prospect highly likely for the multiple sulfide copper nickel mining projects proposed for our lake country in the Duluth Complex. State Auditor Rebecca Otto has spoken publicly of her concerns about this weakness in our mining regulations.

The concern for health is well founded. The Minnesota Department of Health found in 2011 that 10 percent of infants born in the Lake Superior basin have blood mercury levels above the “safe” reference dose of 5.8 micrograms per liter, and some had up to 40 times that level. The most likely source of this is believed to be fish consumption, as methylmercury is accumulated by larger fish in our rivers and lakes. Sulfate pollution of these waters can lead to a proportional increase in methylmercury production in river and lake sediments. As nearly two million tons of sulfur would be brought to the surface during mining, sulfate pollution is a significant risk in the watersheds receiving the drainage from Polymet’s waste rock and tailings complexes. MPCA discharge permits and standards alone can not and will not stem such impacts after mine closure.

Mining Minnesota says that this unprecedented (never done in this state and never by Polymet) type of mining is “not your grandfather’s mining”. That’s the truest assessment the industry has offered. Unlike the ferrous mining done over the past hundred or more years, Polymet’s open pit sulfide mine operation has significantly greater potential to:

pose human health risks through contamination of drinking water and fish, seriously degrade the St. Louis River, destroy wild rice and irreplaceable wetland habitat, and harm the lake that holds 10 percent of the world’s fresh water. The precedent set and the ramifications of this project transcend short-term economic concerns.

No matter what you think of the Polymet mine, the reviewers should hear your perspective.

Please contact the DNR with your comments by 4:30 on March 13, 2014. You can see the SDEIS and comment via the DNR’s web site:

Or directly by email :

E-mail submissions should include a full name and legal mailing address.

You can still comment by mail: Lisa Fay, EIS Project Manager

MDNR Division of Ecological and Water Resources,Environmental Review Unit,

500 Lafayette Road, Box 25

St. Paul, MN 55155-4025