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Polymet promises 'foolproof' pollution control at proposed mine

An executive from Polymet Mining said his company's proposed copper-nickel mine near Aurora would not result in acidic water contaminating the watershed, calling the runoff treatment plan "foolproof."

"Yes, I do," Polymet vice president Brad Moore said at the Lake County Board meeting on Tuesday in response to an audience member's question if he believes the plan would absolutely prohibit acid water runoff.

"This would be the only major industrial facility in northern Minnesota that meets this standard," Moore said.

The operation would be entirely within St. Louis County, though some rivers and streams flow from the affected area northeast into Lake County's share of the Boundary Waters.

Moore also touted the potential economic impacts of the copper mine while addressing environmental concerns.

"Mining has impacts," he said. "We can't just say we don't want it. We can say, 'If you're going to do it you better do it right.'"

The copper-nickel mine slated for the former LTV mine north of Aurora differs from taconite mining because the minerals are contained in sulfide rock, Moore said. When exposed to air and water, sulfide rock can create sulfuric acid that is harmful to the streams and wetlands.

But Moore said that Polymet would not allow acidic water flow into the watershed, with the company planning on placing waste rock on a synthetic liner, from which acid-containing water would be diverted to a waste water treatment plant.

Moore said only 10 percent of the proposed waste rock would be likely to produce acid, and contended that sulfate discharge from the mine would meet standards to protect wild rice.

Yet those issues remained for County Commissioner Paul Bergman, who said he had received phone calls from residents concerned about the proposed mining, including from the environmental group Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness.

In an interview with the News-Chronicle, Betsy Daub, the group's policy director, countered Moore's assurance, saying the mining industry has had a poor track record in successfully abating such pollutants.

"Wherever this type of mining has happened there has been pollution," she said.

Daub said that the mining industry often cites Wisconsin's Flambeau mine as an example of environmentally safe mining practices. However, she said recent DNR testing shows that steams and ponds near that mine have levels of copper and zinc that may be harmful to fish and other aquatic life.

Daub said that a previous draft of the environmental impact statement produced by Polymet anticipated leakage from the proposed mining. She said she doesn't know what changes Polymet has made since that draft, but remains concerned that pollutants could make their way into ground and surface waters surrounding the mining site and remain for 2000 years.

"Who is going to manage the water treatment systems for hundreds of years?" Daub said.

In his presentation, made with a slide show, Moore also discussed financial impacts of the mine, citing Minnesota statutes that require mining companies to produce money to cover the cost of closing a mine before mining begins. He said revenues are likely to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars and regulators like the DNR would have access to the money even if the company went bankrupt, assuring funds available for cleanup if necessary in the future.

More immediately, Moore said the mine would create about 360 full-time jobs at the site and about 600 spin-off jobs in St. Louis County. Moore also said the mine would have a lifetime of about 20 years.

In order to mine in the proposed area, Polymet would have to exchange an equal amount of land to the U.S. Forest Service.

"The exchanged lands that the Forest Service wants have the same or more wetlands than will be lost," Moore said, adding that the land Polymet hopes to trade to the Forest Service has high recreation value, high timber values and several wild rice lakes. 

Moore said the mine's environmental review is continuing, subject to public involvement and judicial review.

"There aren't any decisions relative to this project for some time," he said. "In terms of involvement by the county, by citizens, by environmental groups, business, or whatever there is a lot ahead relative to the project," he said.

County Board Chairman Rich Sve said no action would be taken at the committee of the whole meetings the board takes no action and was instead used to discuss the project.

"We're going to be following this and trying to make our own decisions before we put our necks out and say that we agree or disagree," Sve said. "We hope to have more forums like this," he said.

County Administrator Matthew Huddleston said that he has been talking to the Lake County attorney but doesn't believe that the county has the ability to regulate the operation.

"I'm not sure if there is anything that we can do, if there is something that we want to do," Huddleston said.