PolyMet review goes publicIssues over length of water treatment, financial assurance still unresolved.
By: John Myers, Duluth News Tribune
The 2,169-page review of how PolyMet Mining Corp. plans to open Minnesota’s first copper mine and abide by all environmental laws went public Friday after more than three years of behind-the-scenes drafting.
The revised Environmental Impact Statement — released by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Forest Service — now is open for public review and comments until March 13.
Even the executive summary is 57 pages long.
Meetings have been set in January for Duluth, Aurora and St. Paul to explain the environmental review and take questions and comments.
While regulatory agencies and PolyMet officials agreed Friday’s release marks an historic event in the decades-long PolyMet saga, they also cautioned that the release is not an endorsement of or approval for the project.
Minnesota DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr likened the environmental review to the process of buying a house.
“If you are going to buy a house, you want as much information on that house as you can get beforehand,” he said. But just because you’ve investigated the condition of the house, local schools and the neighborhood, “that doesn’t necessarily mean you are going to buy it.”
Frank Ongaro, executive director of the industry group Mining Minnesota, said the review “is an important step for PolyMet and the copper-nickel industry in Minnesota.”
“This demonstrates that the system is working the way it was meant to work. Now we can at least all be working from the same set of facts instead of suggestions and rumors and rushes to judgment,” Ongaro said.
PolyMet held a rally of sorts Friday at its mine office north of Hoyt Lakes that included labor leaders and regional elected officials. Jon Cherry, the company’s president and CEO, called the release “a significant milestone in the project’s development.”
“We feel very good with where we are, that this design has demonstrated it can meet any federal or state standards that are out there,” Cherry told the News Tribune, adding that the review demonstrates how the company plans to extract copper, nickel and platinum group metals while meeting all state and federal laws.
Paula Maccabee, attorney for the group Water Legacy, said the 90-day comment period isn’t long enough for Minnesotans to digest such a cumbersome, technical document.
“The idea that they would spend years and years putting this together and messaging the data and then expect people to digest it in 90 days is totally unrealistic,” she said. “The whole EIS process is supposed to explain things to people. But this document has evolved so much it almost seems more aimed at confusing us.”
After the public meetings and comment period, the regulatory agencies will work to address comments and answer questions raised. Landwehr invited Minnesotans to get engaged and make “thoughtful, informed input on the environmental analysis.”
“The DNR and other agencies have used their most objective and best scientific expertise to review this project,” he said. “Now we need all interested parties to give us their comments.”
DNR officials said they expect upwards of 10,000 comments.
At some point, probably late in 2014, the agencies will make a decision on whether the environmental review is “adequate” or not — whether it has covered all potential environmental impacts. If so, the company then would move into the permitting stage, seeking about 20 different permits from local, state and federal agencies to start mining, drain wetlands and other actions.
PolyMet hopes to get those permits late in 2014 or early 2015, then quickly secure loans from banks to start construction.
But the release of the environmental review doesn’t necessarily mean permitting is a foregone conclusion, said Steve Colvin, deputy director of the DNR’s Ecological and Water Resources Services division.
“If we think there’s a problem that can’t be solved, we won’t issue a permit,” Colvin said.
DNR officials who helped usher the review thorough the process fielded questions Friday on key issues, including how long runoff from the mine and processing center would have to be treated. A draft of the environmental review said treatment would be needed for at least 500 years and perhaps in perpetuity. But the final version now says only that treatment will be needed “as long as required” to meet state and federal regulations.
The review estimates that the proposed water treatment system will work for 200 or even 500 years after the mine closes, if needed, and estimates that it would cost $3.5 million to $6 million a year to maintain and monitor the site after the mine shuts down — in addition to an estimated $200 million to “reclaim” the mine site at closure.
DNR officials said they expect no acid drainage from the mine at any point. But they also conceded they really don’t know how long treatment might be needed, or how much money it will cost over the decades.
“The 200 years they list doesn’t mean that’s when treatment will end. That’s just as far out as their modeling went. It never really showed an end to treatment; no one knows,” said Kathryn Hoffman, attorney for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy.
The money to pay for treatment would come from so-called financial assurance, an insurance-policy-like financing PolyMet will be required to front to cover the cost of mine cleanup after the mine closes. That could include a trust fund, with the interest earned used to pay for treatment costs, even replacement of the treatment system.
Under state mining rules, the amount of financial assurance will start relatively low but ramp up, with more money required from PolyMet as mining advances, said Jess Richards, director of the DNR’s Lands and Minerals division that both promotes and regulates mining in the state.
Toronto-based PolyMet hopes to begin mining in 2016. The 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.
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 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.