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In Response: The problem with PolyMet is actually PolyMet

From the column: "Sometimes a bad proposal is simply a bad proposal, and clearly the process needs to allow for that."

Brad Moore, PolyMet's executive vice president of environmental and governmental affairs, looks out from the top of a tailings basin dam built when LTV mined taconite near Hoyt Lakes. PolyMet plans to use the former LTV basins as the base for their mine waste storage area, raising dams to hold back the tailings from its copper processing operations. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com
PolyMet's executive vice president of environmental and governmental affairs looks out from the top of a tailings basin dam built when LTV mined taconite near Hoyt Lakes. PolyMet plans to use the former LTV basins as the base for its mine waste storage area.
2017 News Tribune file photo
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You don’t get an A on a paper because you spent six weeks writing it and it’s a few hundred pages long. You get an A on a paper if it’s good. So it goes with permitting a mine. Fifteen years of review doesn’t mean anything if a proposal is bad. It certainly doesn’t mean a proposal is magically good.

That’s why we were surprised to see a Jan. 11 News Tribune editorial ( Our View: “More-reasonable mining reviews are needed ”) adopt the faulty logic of U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber. It seemed the News Tribune was disinclined to ask the obvious related question: What if the problem is with the application itself?

The editorial pointed to the PolyMet history as a “maddening” example of an “excessive permitting process.” Let’s consider that history.

In 2009, four years after PolyMet's environmental review began, the agencies published a draft environmental impact statement. The EPA rated that statement “environmentally unsatisfactory” and “inadequate” and warned of impacts to water quality and wetlands, increased emissions of mercury into the Lake Superior watershed, and what it called “inadequate financial assurance for performance.” In other words, PolyMet flunked, sending the application back to the drawing board and requiring more time. The agencies published the final environmental impact statement in 2015 and permits in 2018.

Today, the most important PolyMet permits have been suspended or sent back to agencies by the courts. It takes a lot for a court to go against an agency decision and conclude there are serious issues with a permit; yet that is what has happened.

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In the case of the permit to mine, the Minnesota Court of Appeals and the Minnesota Supreme Court both agreed there is literally no evidence in the record supporting PolyMet’s untried (and cheap) reclamation proposal involving bentonite clay. That’s why PolyMet is now in a DNR contested case hearing.

After a federal court ruling, the EPA has concluded that PolyMet’s proposed destruction of the headwaters of the Partridge River could lead to an unacceptable violation of tribal water quality standards. That’s why the PolyMet wetlands permit is suspended and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is deciding if the permit violates the Fond du Lac Band's water quality standards for mercury pollution.

And so on.

Do these “setbacks” automatically mean something is wrong with the process? Or that the lawsuits are “frivolous,” as the editorial casually asserted? Or might this mean there are serious deficiencies with the proposal?

For the sake of discussion, let’s imagine adopting a set timeline, as suggested by Stauber. Let’s say, for example, agencies and courts must complete all their business within 10 years, no matter what. If, after 10 years, the applicant has not resolved its issues, what then? Move forward anyway? Cancel outright? Ironically, if we’d set a 10-year deadline on the PolyMet discussion, we might be onto something better by now.

Sometimes a bad proposal is simply a bad proposal, and clearly the process needs to allow for that. With PolyMet, the many problems include a faulty reclamation scheme, a flimsy dam, and pollution of downstream waters the state has spent millions to restore. These flaws have all been identified by independent scientists, tribal authorities, the U.S. EPA, and even by the state agencies’ own consultants.

And yet here we are, 15 years later and still with the same old bad proposal. If we were to accept the logic of Stauber and the News Tribune, apparently we’d just be stuck with it anyway for time served. “Sorry, kids, that’s the law.”

Hardrock mining is the most polluting industry in the United States, with, as its calling card, Superfund sites, polluted waterways, and lakes so toxic birds die when they land on them.

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So, yes, in a region famous for its clean water, where water is fundamental to people’s health and way of life, we need to be willing to consider the radical suggestion that if a proposal is floundering, hey, maybe the problem is the proposal itself.

JT Haines is the Northeastern Minnesota director of the Duluth- and St. Paul-based Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy (mncenter.org). Pete Marshall is the communications director for the nonprofit, St. Paul-based Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness. www.friends-bwca.org.

Pete Marshall or Peter Marshall.jpg
Pete Marshall
JT Haines.jpg
JT Haines

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