Federal regulatory agencies are cooperating better and are on pace to finish the draft environmental review of the PolyMet copper mine project by January.

That was the report Friday after a meeting in Duluth called by U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack, R-North Branch.

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Cravaack, Iron Range lawmakers, PolyMet corporate officials and representatives of state and federal regulatory agencies have met three times this year to facilitate progress of the proposed cooper-nickel mine and processing center between Babbitt and Hoyt Lakes.

"I'm extremely encouraged. We're addressing problems before they become problems," Cravaack told reporters after the meeting.

The PolyMet meetings have been closed to the public and to the media, although participants have answered questions afterward. Cravaack said the company may discuss "proprietary" issues during the meetings and that the closed doors allow a more frank discussion.

Cravaack has excluded environmental groups and mining opponents from the meetings. He said mining critics have a "conduit" to the meetings through regulatory agencies.

Cravaack said the environmental impact statement should be ready by January, as has been predicted for about a year, and that permits could be issued and the mine under construction by this time in 2012. It would be Minnesota's first-ever copper mine.

"We're on track to get this mine open and bring jobs to northern Minnesota," he added.

Cravaack said the quarterly meetings have spurred agency officials to talk more and coordinate efforts, speeding the environmental review process that has already lasted four years. That includes the Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and Pollution Control Agency also are involved.

"Because of these meetings, hopefully there will be no surprises" that would stall the environmental impact statement, Cravaack said.

State Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Pike Township, and Sen. Dave Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, agreed that Cravaack's meetings have helped keep federal regulators focused.

"It appears the agencies are communicating in a way they were not communicating before," Tomassoni said.

But the Range lawmakers also expressed frustration over some state pollution regulations, especially the state's former limit on sulfate levels in wild rice lakes and rivers. While state lawmakers essentially removed any sulfate limit in statute during their 2011 legislative session, federal officials have said they may not approve the change because it's not backed by any scientific evidence. Mining-waste rock often contains high levels of sulfate, which are known to harm wild rice in some instances.

Rukavina said federal legislation may be needed to nullify the limit on sulfate pollution, which he said may be too low for even existing taconite mining operations to continue in the region.