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No human health study for PolyMet mine

Gov. Mark Dayton has decided not to conduct a human health assessment of the proposed PolyMet copper mine project, agreeing with state regulatory officials that the study isn’t needed.

Health Commissioner Ed Ehlinger, Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr and Pollution Control Commissioner John Linc Stine agreed that the human health impacts of the project were well covered in the environmental review that is just now wrapping up after nearly 10 years.

“Governor Dayton agrees with their assessment,” a statement from the governor's office said Monday afternoon.

The announcement comes just weeks after Dayton said he’d have health experts look at a human health assessment after he listened to concerns raised by health professionals from Duluth and across Minnesota.

But the commissioners said the issues raised by medical professionals already have been covered and that time is running out to conduct new reviews of what would be Minnesota's first-ever copper mine.

“We have considered the information provided as the basis for these requests and have concluded that the FEIS (final environmental impact statement) adequately addressed public health impacts based on water and air quality evaluation criteria and regulatory standards that are protective of human health,” the commissioners wrote in a memo to Dayton.

The commissioners said conducting a health impact assessment at this point in the process would cause unnecessary delays and potential legal problems.

“It is still our strong opinion that (a health impact assessment) will not significantly inform the decisions regarding permits required for the project beyond the information already available,” they wrote. A health impact assessment “would have the potential to introduce unintended delay in decision making, legal risks, and public confusion about the” process.

The News Tribune first reported in February, 2014 that several physicians and public health officials were concerned that potential human health impacts from the copper mine had not been well addressed in the environmental review. Other groups joined, including the Minnesota Public Health Association, Minnesota Medical Association, Minnesota Citizens Federation Northeast, Healthy Food Action and Food and Water Watch Midwest Region.

The Statewide Minnesota Academy of Family Physicians, representing more than 3,000 family doctors, unanimously passed a resolution calling for a health-risk assessment of copper mining in Minnesota — especially an increase in mercury levels in an area where fish already have high mercury content, in some cases rendering them unsafe for children and women of childbearing age to eat.

“The voices of thousands of doctors, nurses and public-health professionals across the state of Minnesota trying to prevent toxic pollution and protect patients and communities deserve to be heard,” a group of Duluth doctors wrote in a letter to the editor in November. “We ask Gov. Mark Dayton and his commissioners to join our call for a thorough, independent and objective assessment of health risks related to the PolyMet sulfide mine project.”

Dayton last month said he would have state health officials to look at whether a separate health department study of the impacts was needed.

Dayton in recent weeks has come under pressure to get out of the way of the PolyMet project, including threats from Republican leaders in the House to hold up a special legislative session that would extend unemployment benefits for laid-off miners if the governor didn’t vow not to block PolyMet.

The governor’s decision “is very disappointing. It’s sad, because I think there’s the potential for some very serious health impacts,” said Dr. Deb Allert, a family practice physician in Two Harbors. “I think there is a lot of political pressure going on here.”

Paula Maccabee, attorney for Water Legacy, said the commissioners are wrong that human health impacts were well-covered in the environmental review.

Maccabee cited an independent review by a Canadian mercury expert who found the mine and processing center near Hoyt Lakes would create a significant risk of raising toxic methylmercury levels in local waterways, including the St. Louis River.

State and federal officials are expected to sign off on the final environmental review early in 2016, a move that could trigger the first lawsuits on the project. The company hopes to apply for and receive permits later in 2016.

PolyMet plans a $600 million open-pit mine and processing center near Hoyt Lakes — employing 300 people for 20 years or more — mining and processing copper, nickel, platinum, palladium and possibly other valuable metals.

Supporters say the project can be done without long-term harm to the environment, providing an economic boost to the regional economy that’s been hard hit by a downturn in iron ore mining.

Critics say the long-term potential for acidic runoff from copper-bearing rock, and other potential water pollution problems, isn't worth the relatively short-term jobs created.

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