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Minnesota doctors request to add human health to environmental reviews

The Minnesota Environmental Quality Board on Wednesday heard testimony on whether the state should amend its rules and require specific human-health analysis when conducting future environmental reviews of proposed copper mines.

Lead by the Northeastern Minnesota chapter of the Minnesota Academy of Family Physicians, several health care and environmental advocates testified that human-health impacts should be specifically included when the state considers proposed copper mines.

"So much of our patients' health is outside of our clinic walls," said Dr. Dania Kamp of Moose Lake, president of the 3,100-member Minnesota Academy of Family Physicians, adding that clean water and air and safe food is critical for her patients' health.

The doctors are specifically asking that state rules be changed so that any environmental impact statement or environmental assessment worksheet for any copper mine project also include a human-health risk assessment and human-health impact assessment. Copper mine critics say the mining operations risk polluting water, including increasing toxic mercury that can taint fish and make them unsafe to eat.

Dr. Debbie Allert, who practices in Two Harbors and is president of the Lake Superior Chapter of the academy, noted regional and statewide groups representing thousands of Minnesota doctors, nurses and public health professionals have been requesting a better analysis of the health impacts of copper mining since early 2014.

"It's truly unprecedented for so many medical professionals to take a position like this. ... We are jointly expressing our deep concern for the health of our community," Allert told the EQB Wednesday. "What will be the impacts of sulfide mines if they work perfectly and if they don't work perfectly?"

The EQB is made up of citizen members and commissioners of state regulatory agencies. The board sets overall state environmental policy and rules but doesn't deal with specific projects. The EQB took no action Wednesday but could act on the request at an upcoming meeting. If eventually adopted by the EQB, the proposal would have to go through the usual state rule-making process, including public hearings and comments. It would not be retroactive to include PolyMet, which has already moved beyond environmental review. But a new rule could impact the proposed Twin Metals copper mine near Ely or the possible Kennecott copper mine near Tamarack west of Duluth.

Tom Landwehr, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, echoed what copper mine supporters have said, noting many of the requests sought by the doctors already is included in the environmental impact process.

"The EIS already gives us the analysis of those (health) impacts," Landwehr noted. "I didn't hear anything that's different than what we are doing right now under an EIS."

But Allert said the existing environmental review process assumes best-case scenarios for the projects.

"What if things don't work out as planned?" she asked, noting copper mines historically have created pollution that ran off the mine sites.

Gov. Mark Dayton met with the health provider groups in 2015 and agreed to ask his state department heads to look into it. But, last December, Landwehr, state Health Commissioner Ed Ehlinger and Pollution Control Commissioner John Linc Stine agreed that the human health impacts of the PolyMet project already had been covered well enough in the environmental review that was wrapping up after nearly 10 years. Dayton issued a statement saying he agreed with his commissioners.

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