Thursday marked the final day for people to submit public comments on a draft environmental impact statement for the first proposed copper-nickel-precious metals mine and processing facility on Minnesota’s Iron Range. And comment they did.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources received more than 40,000 responses to PolyMet’s proposal, shattering the previous record of about 3,800 comments set during a review of the company’s first draft environmental impact study in 2010.

One of the most important entities to weigh in on the project waited until the final day to submit its concerns.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which had deemed PolyMet’s 2010 impact statement “environmentally unsatisfactory,” noted “extensive improvements to the project” but flagged the updated draft of the document as being cause for environmental concerns arising from insufficient information.

In a 16-page letter to regulators, Alan Walts, director of the EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, said: “There remain a number of areas where potential environmental impact should be more effectively addressed and where the project description and evaluation … should be improved.”

Among the concerns the EPA raised were properties of the leachate from waste rock, the impact a coal ash landfill could have on the Embarrass River, how to monitor the effects of mining and processing operations on aquatic life, long-term seepage from a tailings basin, water quality monitoring, potential mercury contamination, the impact on area wetlands, financial assurances that should guarantee safe management of the facility and the waste it has produced for decades to come and the adequacy of a groundwater capture system.  

Bruce Richardson, a spokesman for PolyMet, noted that the rating the EPA has bestowed on his company’s venture is consistent with other projects that have continued to move forward, including the Minnesota Steel pellet plant and steel mill in Nashwauk, the Central Corridor Light Rail Project and a bridge recently built across the St.Croix River at Stillwater.

“We’re certainly pleased,” Richardson said. “It has taken a tremendous amount of work to bring the project to this point. Everyone involved should be pleased with what this rating shows: that this project has demonstrated we’re capable of safely mining this body and protecting the environment.”

But Betsy Daub, policy director of Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, contends the EPA has far from endorsed PolyMet’s project yet.

“Four years ago, the EPA looked at PolyMet’s plans and gave them a failing grade after finding them completely unacceptable. They’ve spent the last four years doing remedial work on those plans, and now they’ve basically got to an ‘incomplete’ grade, where the EPA can’t fully assess the project because it doesn’t have enough information. I think that after four years, it’s pretty shocking to only get an incomplete.”

Richardson expressed confidence PolyMet will be able to sufficiently address the concerns raised by the EPA and others. He voiced hopes that a final environmental impact study for the mine at Babbitt and processing facility in Hoyt Lakes will be approved by year’s end. Allowing a few additional months for permitting and about 15 months for construction, Richardson said PolyMet could see its first production by 2016.

Daub characterized many of the concerns flagged by the EPA and others as “undeniably significant” issues that will require substantial work to address.

Supporters of PolyMet’s efforts point to the promise of creating up to 350 long-term mining jobs with the $650 million operation of a plant and an open pit mine. The project also could open the door for additional copper-nickel projects still in development on the Range.

Critics have raised concerns about the hazards of exposing sulfides that could create runoff that could endanger some of the state’s most pristine waters for years to come.

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