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PCA agrees on PolyMet draft water quality permit

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is apparently satisfied with a draft water-quality permit for the proposed PolyMet copper mine project, a major permit needed for water pollution discharge at the site.

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The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is apparently satisfied with a draft water-quality permit for the proposed PolyMet copper mine project, a major permit needed for water pollution discharge at the site.

PolyMet on Thursday heralded the draft permit, posted on the PCA website this week, as another step toward the project’s reality.

The PCA “has determined there is reasonable assurance that the proposed activities will be conducted in a manner that will not violate applicable water standards,” PCA Commissioner John Linc Stine noted in a letter to the company.

Hearings on the PCA water permit will be held jointly with the Department of Natural Resources which earlier this month released PolyMet’s draft permit to mine. Those hearings are set for Feb. 7 in Aurora and Feb. 8 in Duluth. The PCA has tentatively set Jan. 31 to March 16 for written comments on the permit.

“While the draft documents are not open for public comment yet the public is encouraged to begin reviewing the documents,” Dave Verhasselt, PCA communications director, told the News Tribune Thursday. Verhasselt said that the permit was posted on a public website, but not announced to the public, becasue the agency wanted to give tribal authorities time to review it before the PCA issued a public notice. It was PolyMet issuing a media notice that drew attention to the permit on the PCA website.

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The water-quality permit establishes specific limits and requirements intended to protect Minnesota’s surface and groundwater quality for drinking water, aquatic life and recreation. It  also covers the state obligations under the federal National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System program.

Releasing the so-called “401 Certification” is in effect preliminary approval by the PCA of the PolyMet plan to meet water quality regulations, the company said Thursday.

With the release of the major permits “we move ever closer to fulfilling our commitment to build an environmentally responsible mine and to provide the jobs, mineral diversity and tremendous economic benefits that this project will bring to the Iron Range and the state,” said Jon Cherry, PolyMet CEO, in a statement.

Supporters say the estimated $650-plus million project, which will mine 32,000 tons of rock daily and employ about 300 people, will help diversify a regional economy that has been tied the cyclical iron mining industry for a century. The project will require an estimated 2 million construction hours.

Critics say the high-sulfur rock that holds the copper poses too high a risk of acidic runoff that could spur heavy metals and other problems in downstream waterways, including the St. Louis River and Lake Superior. Some say copper simply shouldn't be mined in a water-rich environment such as northern Minnesota.  

In addition to copper and nickel, PolyMet also expects to recover gold, platinum, palladium and other valuable metals from mined rock. The company is considering building a secondary processing plant on the site to further refine the minerals.

Another still-hanging issue is a federal lawsuit, filed by environmental groups, challenging a land swap between PolyMet and the U.S. Forest Service. The Forest Service approved the land swap, giving PolyMet ownership of 6,500 acres at the proposed mine site and giving the Superior National Forest an equal value of previously privately-owned forest to add for public use.  That lawsuit is pending. But legislation has passed the U.S. House that would force the Forest Service to move ahead with the land swap, in essence nullifying the suit. The bill has not yet passed the Senate. PolyMet already has acquired mineral rights under the surface land.

For more information and to see the draft permit go to www.pca.state.mn.us/northmet .

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Related Topics: POLYMETENVIRONMENTMINING
John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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