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EPA signals support for PolyMet review

The federal Environmental Protection Agency has filed a letter with Minnesota regulators that appears to signal support of the final environmental impact statement for the proposed PolyMet copper mining project near Hoyt Lakes.

The Region 5 EPA’s letter filed Monday was one of thousands received by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. It stopped short of endorsing the project — that’s not under the EPA’s purview — but the letter from federal regulators is considered important because it appears to say most of the agency's concerns about the years-long environmental review process have been addressed.

The EPA says concerns raised in recent months about public health issues from mercury and dust, groundwater flow and the effect on species such as moose can be addressed by other agencies — namely the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Forest Service that have authority over a critical wetlands permit and land exchange for the mine site.

“The FEIS adequately resolves EPA's comments on the Preliminary FEIS pertaining base flow and cumulative impacts, model calibration and contradictory information. EPA's remaining comments… can and should be addressed in the USFS Record of Decision, in the Corps permit evaluation process which culminates in a (record of decision), and/or in the context of other permitting reviews as appropriate,” the letter notes.

PolyMet spokesman Bruce Richardson said he was aware of the letter but had not yet seen it.

Paula Maccabee, attorney for the group Water Legacy, said she received a copy and that the EPA’s comments are not surprising.

“The EPA seems like they are keeping their powder dry. But they don’t have veto power of the environmental review process and there are much bigger issues ahead now,” Maccabee said. “The EPA does have authority over the Corps of Engineers decision on Clean Water Act permits and we still have a long way to go on those decisions.”

Those decisions include whether PolyMet is allowed to destroy wetlands on the site and replace them in other areas.

The DNR is expected to decide early in 2016 whether the final environmental review, released in November, is technically “adequate.” DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr has already said the agency believes it is and that only compelling public comments could change that decision.

The public comment period on the state’s version of the environmental review ended Monday.

If the state does indeed sign off on the environmental review, it will trigger the company filing for the 23 permits needed to start work on the project and begin mining. It also could trigger the first lawsuits from opponents who continue to say the environmental review is inadequate.

PolyMet is proposing Minnesota’s first copper-nickel mine and processing center that would create about 300 jobs for about 20 years. Supporters say it will help diversify the Iron Range economy hit hard by the cyclical nature of iron ore mining. Critics say the project is likely to taint downstream waters with acidic runoff.

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