State and federal agencies have finished answering tens of thousands of public comments on the proposed PolyMet copper mine project and have finished writing the massive environmental review document.
The so-called Preliminary Final Environmental Impact Statement is being burned to compact discs this week and will be mailed to the federal Environmental Protection Agency, tribal resource agencies and others who have requested the document through state open records laws.
"Publication of the PFEIS is a significant milestone for the project and for the people of northeast Minnesota," Jon Cherry, PolyMet president and CEO, said in a statement Tuesday. "... The PFEIS confirms that the state's first copper-nickel mine can responsibly produce strategically important metals in a manner that is protective of natural resources and remediates legacy environmental impacts from historic mining operations."
As first reported in the News Tribune earlier this month, the document won't see any public input at this point but will instead see the cooperating agencies comment and critique the work.
A final decision by agency heads on whether the environmental review is "adequate' won't come until the end of the year.
If the answer is yes, PolyMet can then formally apply for the multiple permits it needs to mine. Those could come in 2016.
State and federal agencies didn't meet their goal of having the PFEIS complete by "early spring'' but they did make early summer. The DNR, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Forest Service have been poring over 58,000 public comments on the Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement that went public in 2013.
Of the 58,000 comments - the most ever for a project in Minnesota - the DNR said it has found 17,000 unique ideas, 25 major topic areas and 600 themes within those topics.
"It's still preliminary. But getting to this point, it is a big deal. It's been a laborious process to get to this level of detail,'' said Tom Landwehr, DNR commissioner. The review, which was 2,169 pages as a draft document in December 2013, has grown to some 3,000 pages, Landwehr said.
Eventually, in about three months, after the cooperating agencies comment and any additional changes are made, the document will receive a final designation and be officially released to the public, subject to another public comment period later this year of 30 days or longer.
Landwehr cautions that the preliminary final Environmental Impact Statement, even when final, is not a "decision document" allowing any mining. That will come only when state and federal agencies decide whether to issue permits.
"The permit to mine is the real permission to mine, and that's the ultimate decision document, along with all of the 21 permits they need to begin mining,'' Landwehr said. "There's no guarantee that any of the permits will be granted simply based on the EIS."
But the adequacy decision will be the first formal action by regulatory agencies, and those actions could trigger lawsuits by copper mining critics who say the proposed mining process endangers northern Minnesota's pristine waterways.
Lawsuits notwithstanding, once permits are issued PolyMet plans to start digging the mine and building its transportation and processing systems as quickly as possible. But, before that construction can happen, the fledgling company needs to raise millions of dollars from investors and/or lenders to pay for the buildout.
PolyMet is hoping that the huge deposits of copper, nickel, gold, platinum, palladium and other metals at its proposed mine site - as well as PolyMet's ownership of the former LTV Steel processing center - will help it attract the needed capital. It's the first and only project for the so-called "Canadian junior" mining company based in Toronto.
PolyMet is proposing Minnesota's first copper-nickel mine, a $600 million open-pit mine near Babbitt with a processing center at the former LTV Steel site north of Hoyt Lakes. The project is expected to create about 350 jobs for more than 20 years, plus extensive spinoff business. Copper mining skeptics continue to have grave concerns over long-term water treatment at the site, especially acidic mine runoff and mine waste from high-sulfur rock, noting that treatment could be required for decades after the mine closes.
Supporters say any runoff can be effectively treated without environmental damage, and they say the project could help diversify the regional economy that's been hard-hit this year by the collapse of global iron ore prices, the only metal mined in the state so far.