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PolyMet opponents mark comment deadline with rally

A coalition of Minnesota environmental and social justice groups held an event at the state Capitol Tuesday to highlight their delivery of thousands of comments to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources against the proposed permit to mine for the PolyMet copper mine project north of Hoyt Lakes.

Tuesday was the last day to comment on the draft permit before the DNR decides whether to issue what is the most important of about 20 permits PolyMet needs before opening the state's first-ever copper-nickel mine and processing plant.

The groups included Duluth for Clean Water, Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, Friends of the Cloquet Valley State Forest, Izaak Walton League Minnesota Division, League of Women Voters, Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, Civic Action, Sierra Club North Star Chapter and WaterLegacy.

The DNR also must decide whether to call for a contested case hearing on key and controversial permit issues. Several groups have called for those hearings that would be held in front of an administrative law judge. PolyMet supporters say those hearings aren't needed because all major issues have been vetted during the environmental review and permitting processes.

The groups said the mining permit doesn't do what Gov. Mark Dayton said was necessary in a permit, namely protect both the environment and taxpayers of Minnesota from future cleanup costs. They said key problems in the permit include allowing wet storage of mine waste tailings in an elevated impoundment, called a tailings basin, held back by a man-made earthen dam. The basins are common for iron ore mines in Minnesota but have been criticized in recent years by many engineers after major dam breaks at copper, nickel and other mines. The groups pressed the DNR to instead require dry storage of mine waste so there would be no need to treat water leaving the site for years into the future and no danger of a catastrophic dam break.

Others said PolyMet's cash flow won't allow for fully funded financial assurance requirements to make sure the project is properly closed if the company ceases to exist.

Frank Ongaro, executive director of Mining Minnesota, said "everybody gets to have their say. That's the beauty of the transparency of this process."

PolyMet spokesman Bruce Richardson said "the public comment period for the state's draft decisions is an important part of the permitting process. As that period concludes after a long and thorough scientific process, we look forward to the agencies reviewing any comments they have received, making any appropriate changes, and rendering their final decisions in a timely manner."