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The PolyMet project still is in the environmental review phase. (2006 file / News Tribune)

PolyMet comments surpass 40,000

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Duluth News Tribune
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PolyMet comments surpass 40,000
Duluth Minnesota 424 W. First St. 55802

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has received more than 40,000 comments on the proposed PolyMet copper mine and expects thousands more by the time the public comment period officially closes Thursday afternoon.

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The DNR, along with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Forest Service, must then sort through and categorize every single comment about the Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement and then develop responses -- not necessarily for each individual comment but to each of the major issues, concerns and points raised.

That process probably will take months, and the number of comments received is so far above any other project that DNR officials say they have no sense of when they might be done.

"We just don't have a timeline. We don't know how many comments we'll get at the end. We don't know how complicated they will be,'' said Chris Niskanen, DNR director of communications. "We've got dozens of people working on it, both our (DNR) people and the contactor, ERM, has people on it.''

Of the 40,000 comments, Niskanen said an estimated 90 percent are part of a mass mailing or emailing, similar to form-letter comments.

"That doesn't mean they aren't raising legitimate issues. But it means that they aren't all different; they won't require separate responses for each one,'' he said.

The vast majority of comments are expected to fall into a few major categories, such as air quality, mercury contamination, water quality and water modeling, a land exchange with the Forest Service for the mine site, wetland destruction and replacement (the Army Corps' major issue) and long-term pollution monitoring, treatment and cleanup, among others.

The DNR will have several options in responding to comments, including modifying the text of the environmental review, providing additional explanation of the issue raised by the commenter, requesting additional data, reworking the agency's analysis, re-running computer models, requesting the company modify its project plan, among others, Niskanen said.

Perhaps the most important comment has yet to come -- from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It was the EPA's opinion in 2010 that sent the original PolyMet review project back to the drawing board for an extra four years.

"Everyone is eagerly awaiting the EPA's comments,'' Niskanen said.

At some point, the responses will be released and the DNR and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will rework the Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement into a final EIS, after which the DNR will make a decision on whether the project can move forward -- a so-called "adequacy decision."

The final EIS will get another, shorter public comment period, likely 30 to 45 days, Niskanen said.

In the meantime, even before the environmental review is deemed adequate, the company can apply for permits to begin construction and mining. But those permits wouldn't be awarded until after a final EIS is approved.

"We've already started the process of getting ready for the permit applications,'' Niskanen said, such as rounding up experts on the issue of financial assurance -- how much money PolyMet will have to set aside to reclaim the mine, treat polluted runoff and fix any major problems that develop even long after the mine shuts down.

The 2,169-page review of how PolyMet Mining Corp. plans to open Minnesota's first copper mine and abide by all environmental laws was released in December. Since then, three public meetings have been held to accept verbal comments. The comment period has been open 90 days. The DNR last month denied a request from environmental groups to extend the comment period another 90 days.

Two groups, the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy and Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, last week asked again for an extension, but the DNR hasn't changed its mind.

"I will have our 180 pages of comments in by Thursday. But having more time, an extra 90 days, would have allowed us to be even more specific,'' said Paula Maccabee, attorney for the group Water Legacy. "We've discovered so many things over the last 90 days that are not as the DNR or PolyMet say they are ... some things are just plain wrong; some of their assumptions are simply unsubstantiated. Some modeling that has to be done over. ... We probably would have found more, but we ran out of time."

Maccabee said that re-working of basic elements mean the project simply can't advance until significant additional review.

Bruce Richardson, PolyMet spokesman, said Tuesday the company is "appreciative of the tremendous interest and the time and effort people have taken to express their viewpoints. We're eager to view those comments and to work with the DNR and co-lead agencies to work through any issues toward finalizing the Environmental Impact Statement."

Toronto-based PolyMet hopes to begin mining by about 2016. The project, Minnesota's first copper mine and PolyMet's first-ever project, would at first employ about 300 people and could add another 60 jobs if a hydrometallurgical processing plant is built in later years.

PolyMet already has spent $150 million of shareholder money to get to this point (including $22 million on the environmental review alone) and would spend another $450 million to build the mine and refurbish the old LTV taconite mine processing center for basic copper/nickel ore processing. The hydrometallurgical plant would cost another $200 million if built.

PolyMet is considered a bellwether for a half-dozen other proposed copper, nickel, platinum, palladium and gold mining projects in the so-called Duluth Complex of rock in Northeastern Minnesota. Supporters say the new kind of mining will usher in a new era of economic prosperity for the region. Opponents say the mines have the potential to release acidic runoff, sulfate and heavy metals that could severely damage local waters.

This is the second go-round at an environmental review for PolyMet. When the first one was released in late 2009, by the DNR and Corps, it was widely panned, including by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which called it unacceptable. All parties had to go back and start over -- not just on the review but on basics of the mining process, such as PolyMet adding reverse osmosis water treatment so that acidic runoff from the site won't damage local waterways.

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John Myers
(218) 723-5344
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