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Legal Learning: PolyMet meetings underway

James H. Manahan, J.D. 

“Mining supports us, we support mining.” “Protect our air and our water – stop PolyMet!” What is the truth about the big mining controversy along the western edge of Lake County?

We are now able to read the latest Environmental Impact Statement (SDEIS) and submit comments (until March 13) to the agencies in charge of the approval process (MN Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Forest Service, and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers). You can find the SDEIS at Here are some of the facts:

PolyMet Mining, Inc. (a company headquartered in Toronto, Canada) proposes to create an open pit copper, nickel, cobalt and precious metals mine near Babbitt, Minn. It plans to transport the minerals seven miles by rail to Hoyt Lakes and process them in the old LTV Steel plant. Neither the proposed mine nor the processing facility is in the watershed containing the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. They also want to exchange 6,722 acres of land they own inside Superior National Forest for 6,650 acres of forest land at Babbitt where the minerals have been discovered.

According to the SDEIS, the mining operations would last about 20 years. They expect to remove 533,000 000 tons of ore and waste rock from the deposit. When the minerals are exhausted, PolyMet says it will remove the infrastructure and treat the water in the area for “as long as required in meeting water quality standards”. It also promises that “financial protections would remain in place until the site is maintenance free, including water treatment”. PolyMet is guessing that this means 200 years at the mine site and 500 years at the processing plant. PolyMet has not yet given any details of how they would guarantee compliance with their promises.

Many people are excited about the favorable economic impact this project would have in our part of the state. Others are more concerned about possible environmental destruction. Here is what the SDEIS says about these concerns:

1. Water quality – Sulfate and metals could be released, that would affect living things in the water for many years. Aluminum and lead would increase in waters north of the Embarrass River watershed. PolyMet promises to use reverse osmosis to treat the water for sulfate, liner systems to catch rain that falls on the waste rock stockpiles, and a cap for the tailings basin. It also says that this will alleviate concerns about the effect of sulfate on wild rice production.

2. Water quantity – If water from the tailings basin pond is not sufficient, water will be taken from Colby Lake, at an estimated average rate of 275 gallons per minute. PolyMet plans to capture 90% of the groundwater seepage at the tailings basin, and after being treated the water would be discharged into the Partridge and Embarrass Rivers.

3. Air quality – The project would emit air pollutants such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, greenhouse gases, and dust. PolyMet has proposed state-of-the-art controls to limit emissions, including air filters during rock crushing.

4. Cultural Resources – The project would affect historic and cultural resources important to the Ojibwe people, including the Bois Forte, Fond du Lac, and Grand Portage Bands of Chippewa, by excavation, filling, and earth-moving that could result in visual obstructions, noise, vibration, and dust. Cultural resources include the Laurentian Divide (regarded as a sacred place to the Ojibwe people), and part of the Beaver Bay to Lake Vermillion Trail. PolyMet says it will minimize effects by moving activities away from such resources.

5. Endangered Species – Some protected species, such as Canada lynx and gray wolf, would be affected by noise, vibration, and human traffic. Habitat could be removed or destroyed, and changes in water quality could affect animals, including bald eagles, wood turtles, voles, and tiger beetles. PolyMet said it will restore certain lands when it leaves the area, and “this could potentially create new habitat, though the process could take decades.”

Ron Meador, a journalist and former director of Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, wrote a surprisingly favorable article on this issue in MinnPost last month. He said that no permits for sulfide mining should be given unless PolyMet can demonstrate proven ability to operate and close down its operations without lasting environmental harm, and back up its promises with ironclad financial guarantees to protect taxpayers. And then he said that he thinks PolyMet might do so! He is “highly impressed with the technological advances that seem to be within their reach. . . I’m willing to be persuaded that newer mining technologies and stronger environmental commitments could make the PolyMet project a dramatic departure from hard-rock mining’s terrible history of lasting harm in this country and others.” For additional thoughts on financial assurances see State Auditor Rebecca Otto’s column at

A public hearing was held Jan. 16 at the DECC in Duluth, with another on Jan. 22 at the high school in Aurora.

A third meeting is planned for Jan. 28 at the St. Paul RiverCentre, from 6:45 to 10 p.m.

Comments can also be emailed to (include your full name and mailing address). It is recommended that comments point out substantive doubts about methodology used in the SDEIS, reasonable alternatives, and possible mitigation measures, rather than simply saying you are for or against the project. It is important that they hear from us.

James H. Manahan is a Harvard Law School graduate and was named one of Minnesota’s Top Ten Attorneys. He now handles family law, wills, and probate in and around Lake County, and does mediation everywhere. The opinions expressed in this column are those of its author.