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Feds call PolyMet plan 'inadequate'

A draft Environmental Impact Statement on the proposed PolyMet copper mine near Babbitt is "Environmentally Unsatisfactory -- Inadequate," the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has decided.

"Our review has identified adverse environmental impacts that are of sufficient magnitude that EPA believes the proposed actions must not proceed as proposed," EPA acting regional administrator Bharat Mathur wrote in a recent letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The corps and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resource are preparing a joint Environmental Impact Statement to satisfy state and federal environmental review requirements.

The draft EIS doesn't contain enough information to determine the full extent of impacts or to justify mitigation options, Mathur wrote.

"Consequently, we believe that the DEIS likely underestimated water quality impacts and that the project is likely to have additional unmitigated long-term discharges," he said.

Environmental groups, tribal agencies and residents are critical of the mine because of a long history of pollution at other copper mines worldwide. Opponents say sulfuric acid runoff, which occurs when sulfur-bearing rocks are exposed to air and water, could damage waterways in the area for centuries to come. Other concerns include wetland and habitat loss and an increase in mercury in local waters.

Company officials say the rock in the proposed mine area is unusually low in sulfur for a copper deposit. They also contend that they can take precautions when digging and storing rock and by using new technology to minimize acid runoff while treating any runoff that occurs.

Project opponents already are using the EPA letter on the draft environmental statement, dated Feb. 18, to attack the project.

"The EPA has confirmed our concerns that the PolyMet open-pit sulfide mine will result in unacceptable harm and that the DEIS underestimates project impacts," WaterLegacy attorney Paula Maccabee said in a news release. "Unless all of these problems can be addressed, this project must not proceed."

Frank Ongaro, president of the industry group Mining Minnesota, downplayed the significance of the EPA's comments.

"They are a commenter just like anyone else who made comments on the EIS," he said. "I'm guessing that the EPA's concerns will be looked at and likely many of them will be addressed as the environmental review process moves forward. That's where the discussion should be."

The site of PolyMet's proposed copper mine -- Minnesota's first -- is near Babbitt and Birch Lake. The company would use the former LTV Steel taconite plant near Hoyt Lakes as a processing center. The $600 million project could create 400 or more jobs for more than 20 years. The project is seen as a critical step toward diversifying the Iron Range's economy and is the first of what could be several copper mines stretching from the Ely area to Aitkin County.

This is not the first time the EPA has questioned aspects of the PolyMet project. It has expressed concerns over impacts to air and water quality and wetland mitigation. The EPA also questioned why the DNR and the corps were conducting a separate EIS for a proposed land exchange between Polymet and the U.S. Forest Service.

A spokeswoman for PolyMet did not return a call seeking comment, but, according to a statement on the company's Web site "The final EIS will likely incorporate many of the suggestions from the EPA and others that have been proposed during the public comment period."

A ways to go on statement

The Environmental Protection Agency's top concerns with the proposed PolyMet mine near Aurora and the draft Environmental Impact Statement on the project:

- The project will result in unacceptable and long-term water-quality impacts, including increased mercury in the Lake Superior watershed.

- The plan for dealing with acid-generating waste rock and wastewater must be improved.

- The draft EIS provides incomplete and inadequate compensation for the loss of wetlands. More than 1,000 acres of wetlands will be impacted by the project.

- Financial information on how long-term, post-closure treatment to protect water quality will be paid for should have been included in the draft EIS.