Doctors try again for health study on copper mines

When state officials told concerned physicians last year that they wouldn't conduct a specific study on human health impacts as part of the environmental review of the proposed PolyMet copper mine, they offered some advice. If the doctors wanted ...


When state officials told concerned physicians last year that they wouldn't conduct a specific study on human health impacts as part of the environmental review of the proposed PolyMet copper mine, they offered some advice.

If the doctors wanted human health more fully included in environmental reviews, get the state rules changed to include it.

That's what the Minnesota Academy of Family Physicians will try to do Wednesday when they ask the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board to change state rules to require human health impacts be studied as part of the environmental review for all future copper-nickel mines.

The group of doctors, led by their Duluth chapter, petitioned the EQB for the rule change in May. The EQB added the request to its agenda for its regular meeting Wednesday in St. Paul.


Dr. Debbie Allert, who practices in Two Harbors and is president of the Lake Superior Chapter of the academy, noted doctors, nurses and public health professionals have been requesting a better analysis of the health impacts of copper mining since early 2014.

"We are trying to protect our patients and our communities from a new type of mining that has the potential to increase toxins in our air, water and food supply,'' Allert said in a statement. "Groups representing over 30,000 Minnesota medical, nursing and health professionals have called for health impact assessment of sulfide mining. ..."

If adopted by the EQB, the proposal would have to go through the usual state rulemaking process, including public hearings and comments. It would not be retroactive to include PolyMet which has already moved beyond environmental review. But a new rule could impact the proposed Twin Metals copper mine near Ely or the possible Kennecott copper mine near Tamarack west of Duluth.

In addition to the health professionals, state lawmakers from Duluth have signed on to the request. DFL Reps. Jennifer Schultz and Erik Simonson have sent letters to the EQB supporting the rulemaking petition.

The EQB will take testimony and background on the petition Wednesday but is unlikely to take any action.

PolyMet spokesman Bruce Richardson said human health concerns were built into the project's nearly 10-year environmental review.

"The state and federal environmental review showed that the project as designed is capable of meeting all applicable standards related to human health and environmental protection,'' Richardson said, calling the doctors' request for a separate health study redundant and would add no new level of protection.

Frank Ongaro, executive director of Mining Minnesota, the copper industry trade group, said the petition seeks to isolate copper mining from all other industries in Minnesota by adding a layer of review.


"This is nothing new from this group of physicians. (Minnesota has) a comprehensive process in place. Environmental review for PolyMet clearly addressed all health impact issues,'' Ongaro said. "The commissioners rightly agreed this was not necessary and it's still not necessary."

Ongaro said it could take years to develop the new Minnesota rules, which would be subject to litigation, and would be a further delay to developing copper-nickel mining in Minnesota.

The News Tribune first reported in February 2014 that several physicians and public health officials were concerned that potential human health impacts from the copper mine had not been well-addressed in the environmental review. Other groups joined, including the Minnesota Public Health Association, Minnesota Medical Association, Minnesota Citizens Federation Northeast, Healthy Food Action and Food and Water Watch Midwest Region.

The Statewide Minnesota Academy of Family Physicians, representing more than 3,000 family doctors, unanimously passed a resolution calling for a health-risk assessment of copper mining in Minnesota - especially an increase in mercury levels in an area where fish already have high mercury content, in some cases rendering them unsafe for children and women of childbearing age to eat.

Gov. Mark Dayton met with the groups and agreed to ask his state department heads to look into it. But, last December, state Health Commissioner Ed Ehlinger, Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr and Pollution Control Commissioner John Linc Stine agreed that the human health impacts of the PolyMet project already had been covered well enough in the environmental review that was wrapping up after nearly 10 years.

Dayton issued a statement saying he agreed with his commissioners.

The commissioners said conducting a separate health impact assessment at that point in the process would cause unnecessary delays and potential legal problems.

"It is still our strong opinion that (a health impact assessment) will not significantly inform the decisions regarding permits required for the project beyond the information already available," they wrote. A health impact assessment "would have the potential to introduce unintended delay in decision making, legal risks, and public confusion about the" process.


The Minnesota Department Of Natural Resources signed off on the PolyMet environmental review earlier this year. PolyMet currently is in the process of applying for nearly two-dozen state and federal permits needed before mining can occur. The company also needs to raise the money needed to build-out the mine and processing center.

PolyMet plans a $600 million open-pit mine and processing center near Hoyt Lakes - employing 300 people for 20 years or more - mining and processing copper, nickel, platinum, palladium, gold and possibly other valuable metals.

Supporters say the project can be done without long-term harm to the environment, providing an economic boost to the regional economy that's been hit hard by a downturn in iron ore mining. Critics say the long-term potential for acidic runoff from copper-bearing rock, and other potential water pollution problems, isn't worth the relatively short-term jobs created.

Twin Metals and Kennecott have not yet submitted their proposals for environmental review.

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at
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