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Environmentalists' Views: Four questions PolyMet won’t answer

In a recent speech to the mining industry, U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan said copper-nickel mining can be done in a way that is profitable and also safe for the surrounding environment (“Nolan: Minnesota can have mining and clean water,” April 13).

While few would argue this would be a tremendous victory for Minnesota, even after PolyMet spent over a decade and millions of dollars on environmental review, several gaps in the amount of available information remain. Before Minnesota taxpayers can feel comfortable adopting Nolan’s rosy view of this untested sulfide mining company’s project, four very important questions still need to be answered.

One, will pollution flow north to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, south to Lake Superior, or both?

For years, PolyMet claimed polluted water escaping the site would flow only south, toward Lake Superior. Independent review of the project suggested it is likely pollution also would flow north into the Boundary Waters. Gov. Mark Dayton has made it clear he opposes any sulfide mine that could jeopardize the Boundary Waters, and polling suggests a vast majority of Minnesotans share this view. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has asked the state to gather the data required to adequately answer this question. While the real risk to Lake Superior seems to be getting glossed over, the people of Minnesota need to know if the Boundary Waters are at risk as a result of PolyMet.

Two, will the state of Minnesota follow its rules prohibiting mines requiring long-term treatment of polluted water after closure?

Minnesota’s rules for copper-nickel mines were designed to prevent long-term pollution by requiring that mines be “maintenance-free” at closure. PolyMet’s own models suggest it could take centuries after the final ore is extracted for the site to become maintenance-free. Will the state enforce the law? Or will regulators help PolyMet skirt the law by allowing the mine to stay technically “open” for centuries after mining has stopped?

Three, will the state require an upfront damage deposit sufficient to protect taxpayers and the environment?

The single-largest risk this mine presents to most Minnesotans is the financial cost of cleaning up the site once the mining company leaves or cleaning up a pollution spill the likes of which we have seen recently in Colorado and British Columbia. The state requires the company to put up a damage deposit to help prevent these costs from falling on taxpayers. But the mining company has been adamant that the amount it be asked to put forth can be determined at a later date. Will the people of Minnesota be at risk for paying for cleanup costs? This is another question the recently completed Environmental Impact Statement failed to answer.

And four, will regulators require PolyMet to show how it’ll compensate for thousands of acres of lost wetlands?

PolyMet’s proposal, if permitted, would lead to the largest single destruction of wetlands in modern Minnesota history. More than 900 acres of high-value wetlands could be dug up. The company has a plan to replace or restore equivalent wetlands; however, PolyMet may drain the water from up to 8,000 additional acres of wetlands. PolyMet is required by law to replace these wetlands, too, but has not come up with a plan for how it would do so. Will PolyMet compensate the state for thousands of acres of lost wetlands? This is another question the Environmental Impact Statement did not answer.

It is tempting to buy into the optimism provided by the sulfide mining industry that the mine can be run without any risk to the people of Minnesota.  But when you turn over even the first few rocks, the prospects for this project become increasingly more complicated. The taxpayers of Minnesota will ultimately be on the hook for any residual damage created by this untested form of mining.  As such, it is important that these questions be answered before any permitting decisions are made.

Scott Strand is executive director of the St. Paul-based Minnesota Center For Environmental Advocacy (mncenter.org). Paul Danicic is executive director of the Minneapolis-based Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness (friends-bwca.org). And Paul Austin is executive director of Minneapolis-based Conservation Minnesota (conservationminnesota.org). The three organizations were the founders of the Mining Truth Coalition.

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