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PolyMet final environmental review made public

Joseph Scipioni (right), PolyMet Mining chief operating officer, explains how the company will use rod mills, one of which is at right, to crush metal-bearing rock from 1/2-sized pieces to small pieces of gravel as part of the process of extracting copper, nickel and other metals from the mine. The mills are part of the old LTV processing plant now owned by PolyMet. (2013 file / News Tribune)

The long-anticipated Final Environmental Impact Statement on Minnesota’s first-ever copper mine was unveiled Friday by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the result of a back-and-forth regulatory process that’s spanned a decade.

The move is far from a decision allowing the mine to open. But the final report is considered a major hurdle crossed for PolyMet Mining Inc.’s so-called NorthMet project.

PolyMet primer: Where we go from here

The release of the 3,000-page report, by far the most complex environmental review in state history, kick-starts a 30-day public comment period before top state officials decide if the report followed state environmental rules — if it was “adequate.”

If the answer is yes, that decision, expected in February, will trigger PolyMet applying for permits to begin mining. Those permit applications will then begin another round of public debate and discourse that will likely last through much of 2016 before any decisions are made.

But that adequacy decision also could trigger the first lawsuits in the PolyMet saga as environmental groups contend the process was not adequate, and all sides say the issue may ultimately be decided in court.

The report’s release signals the DNR’s conclusion that the environmental review covers the most important questions raised in the decade since environmental review began. It also signals that the DNR believes PolyMet can and will meet all state water and air pollution regulations.

The Polymet operations “would not cause any significant water quality impacts,” the report notes.

“We really turned this project upside down, inside out to take a look at it,’’ said Tom Landwehr, DNR commissioner, who praised state and federal regulatory agencies for their “rigorous and objective’’ review of the process. The PolyMet operations may have some risk of polluting, he said, but “the project as proposed would meet all state standards.”

Landwehr said it would take a stark revelation during the public comment period over the next month for him to determine the process and report are inadequate.

“Obviously we would not have put out a document we didn’t think was adequate,’’ he noted.

PolyMet officials are calling the release the company’s biggest step yet, saying their original plan has been changed dramatically to make the project more environmentally sound.

“When you look across the nation ... having a Final EIS on a new mine project is really uncommon,” said Brad Moore, PolyMet’s executive vice president of environmental and governmental affairs, in a recent interview. “They take a long time to get through. So having this EIS completed in a thorough manner is a major milestone for the company.”

But environmental groups say the DNR and PolyMet continue to overlook major flaws in the design and proposed operation of the mine, especially how water leaving the site will be treated — or not treated — and how any tainted water will be kept from polluting northern Minnesota waterways.

The final report concludes that PolyMet won’t raise downstream sulfate levels or harm wild rice; won’t send tainted groundwater north toward the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness as some modeling has suggested; and won’t violate downstream mercury limits.

Critics disagree with those conclusions, saying key elements of the environmental review are based on faulty data or false assumptions, rendering the conclusions invalid.

“Based on the preliminary materials reviewed so far, we suspect this Final EIS will not adequately address any of these concerns,’’ the group Mining Truth noted in a statement Friday. “Instead, it appears regulators and PolyMet are still ducking the tough questions while trying to reassure a skeptical public that all their worries will be addressed at some later time.”

Business and labor leaders praised the release and the project’s potential economic benefit to the state.

“The DNR showcased an exceptional amount of dedication and due diligence in reviewing and analyzing this important economic development project,” said Doug Loon, president of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. “Minnesotans should be proud of the effort this agency, along with the Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Forest Service, put forth in examining every detail of the project proposal and responding to public comments. We are encouraged that the state is one step closer to renewed economic vitality.”

The copper, nickel, platinum, palladium, gold and other valuable metals PolyMet plans to mine and process are locked inside rock that is high in sulfides. When that rock is unearthed and exposed to air and water it creates acidic runoff that can pull heavy metals and other contaminants out of the rock.

Critics say that runoff, if uncontained and untreated, could taint nearby and downstream waters.

“Everything in the record so far has been based on PolyMet’s own documents ... and assumptions, not on verifiable data,’’ said Paula Maccabee, attorney for Water Legacy. “Everything I’ve read up to this suggests that the sulfide mine proposed by PolyMet is not suitable for northern Minnesota. The potential to pollute waters and contaminate fish with mercury is too great.”

U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Crosby, said the study’s release is “a major milestone for a project that will bring hundreds of good jobs to our region. …”

“It’s time to move forward,’’ Nolan added. “After studying every aspect of the proposal, and after numerous meetings with all the parties involved, I am urging the co-lead agencies — the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Forest Service — to wrap things up so this project can be permitted and operational as quickly as possible.”

PolyMet stock got a boost on Friday’s news and sat at $1.10 per share at the close of trading Friday, up 10 percent for the day. The stock was as low as 55 cents per share in October and has high as $4.70 back in 2006.

The entire environmental report, and information on how to comment on it, can be found at www.mndnr.gov/polymet.

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