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Our view: Embrace PolyMet’s milestone

PolyMet Mining plans to develop a copper-nickel and precious metals facility at the former LTV Steel Mining Co. site near Hoyt Lakes. (File / News Tribune)

Prospectors, mining companies and others long have sniffed around at northern Minnesota’s rich veins of copper, nickel and other precious metals, knowing they were among the richest in the world.

But no one has come as close to actually extracting those metals, as close to actually mining, as PolyMet, which is expected to reach a major milestone in early November, perhaps even as soon as this week. PolyMet will take a giant leap closer to operations with the release of a Final Environmental Impact Statement, or FEIS, a document that effectively marks the end of an exhaustive and effective environmental-review process of more than 10 years and that ushers in the process of awarding as many as about 23 permits, including the all-important permit to mine.

“When you look across the nation, a Final EIS, having a Final EIS on a new mine project, is really uncommon,” PolyMet’s St. Paul-based Executive Vice President of Environmental and Governmental Affairs Brad Moore said in an interview late last week with the News Tribune, including the Opinion page. “They’re uncommon because they’re very tough processes. They take a long time to get through. So having this EIS completed in a thorough manner is a major milestone for the company. And the fact that the state and federal agencies and their years of review have gotten to this point really shows how thoroughly the regulatory agencies have analyzed the issues here in order to make sure that, moving forward, the environment and environmental topics are managed properly.

“It’s the most extensive EIS in Minnesota history,” Moore said.

“It’s the biggest milestone for the company, I think, to date,” said LaTisha Gietzen, PolyMet’s vice president for governmental and environmental affairs.

The lengthy process has been effective because it flagged shortcomings that since have been addressed — or assumably have been addressed; critics and supporters alike will know for certain once the FEIS drops. The extensive environmental review assures the mining can be done, and will be done, without harming water quality or air quality and without doing other environmental damage.

As key a moment as the statement’s release will be, PolyMet is still a ways from mining.

The U.S. Forest Service needs to issue a record of decision about the statement, allowing a land exchange to proceed. Its record of decision won’t come until after a 45-day public-comment period that could be extended.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will put wetlands permits on notice before issuing a record of decision of its own. Its permits aren’t expected until spring.

And the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (or perhaps Gov. Mark Dayton; it’s a little murky how his interjecting himself into all of this will work out and affect things) has to determine whether the FEIS is adequate. That determination won’t come until after a public-comment period that, by law, needed to be 10 days long but that actually will be 30 days because of the complexity and size of the statement and of the project. Comments will be limited to whether the rules were followed in preparing the FEIS, whether its 58,000 public comments were responded to and whether the document covers what it was supposed to.

“We have no plans to submit permit applications until after the adequacy decision,” Moore said. “We’re interested in seeing the comments as well. That will inform us as we work on the next stages of this process. We’re interested in what the people say.”

In 2016, with the environmental-review process complete and the permitting process underway, the DNR will hold a pre-application meeting on the permit to mine, Moore said. It’ll be a key public gathering related to actual permitting.

The goal is to issue permits within 150 days. A threat to that is the expectation of state and federal lawsuits. Those are expected once the DNR (or governor?) rules that the FEIS is adequate. The permitting process can continue during any legal challenges.

“This is a document that was thoroughly vetted … and really has covered the breadth of issues,” Moore said. “The fact that it will move forward with people questioning it and challenging it is expected. … We certainly know there are topics people have disagreements on, but the EIS has thoroughly covered those topics and has a response or a thoughtful approach to them such that we think the EIS is defensible in litigation.

“We have really good attorneys,” he said. “They go through all these issues thoroughly.”

The hot-button issue of financial assurance — making sure there’s enough money in the bank in case something unexpectedly goes wrong — won’t be settled until during the permitting process. It’s not in the FEIS. The Draft Environmental Impact Statement indicated

$50 million to $200 million of financial assurance would need to be put up, plus $6 million a year. Whatever the number is, it’ll need to be bankruptcy-proof, and it’ll be thoroughly reviewed and adjusted up or down on an annual basis.

The financial assurance could come via letters of credit, insurance, bonds, trust funds and other financial instruments, the banks and other issuers of the backing doing their own due diligence on the validity of PolyMet and its project. If financial institutions are willing to put up big bucks, the public can be that much more assured the project is being done properly and is being watched closely.

After more than 10 years of environmental review — and with the end of that process now imminent and the start of the permitting process poised to begin — northern Minnesota could be providing the copper and other precious metals the world needs before the end of next year. Importantly for northern Minnesota, that also means we soon could be basking in the benefit of hundreds of millions of dollars of long-promised economic impact from the industry.

So PolyMet’s giant leap, its major milestone, can be welcomed and embraced, perhaps as soon as this week.

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