After more than 10 years of skepticism, scrutiny, research, and exhaustive environmental review, what more could possibly be left to discuss and decide regarding the proposed PolyMet copper-nickel mine in Northeastern Minnesota?
Quite a lot, actually. But with the launch of the latest public-comment period, the focus now can be on how the mine will be built, operated, and closed. Attention now can be on the regulations, requirements, and other details that will ensure its safe operations and its promise of an economic boon for our region.
Though arguments over whether PolyMet should be allowed at all surely still will come up, such comments have been dug into already. In great detail. They've been addressed with changes made as a result to PolyMet's plans. The process, as thorough and detailed as it has been transparent, has produced a project with fewer risks, fewer unknowns, and a higher level of comfort that the mining will happen the right way.
Critics and others shouldn't step back, though. Not now. Not with final details still being hammered out.
"It would be fully expected that we would see different types of comments this time, not, you know, necessarily some of the more generic 'we don't like the project'," LaTisha Gietzen, a PolyMet vice president, said in a meeting last week with the News Tribune, including with the Opinion page. "There will be real details to look at this time."
The public will be commenting on specifics rather than speculation, on plans rather than proposals. This latest comment period is in response to the "draft permit to mine," which was released Friday by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. It's essentially the state's preliminary blessing for the construction and operation of what would be Minnesota's first copper-nickel mine.
Of primary interest should be the "financial assurance" the state will require PolyMet to put up at the outset, including how much needs to be cash on hand, how the trust for long-term water treatment will be designed, and other financial details to ensure money is there should the state be responsible for closing the property. The financial assurance will be a year-to-year thing, negotiated annually. It's expected right now to total $75 million during each of the two years of construction, $544 million during the first year of mining, and as much as $1.1 billion at the height of mining, around year 11.
"We've been at this project for (more than 10 years). There has been a great deal of technical work, public review, and effort to build a project that is environmentally strong and (to build) a financial assurance package that is strong, too, so we can protect Minnesotans and the environment and also have a jobs-creating entity up here to diversify our Iron Range," said Brad Moore, another PolyMet vice president. "So we're excited about this step in the process."
Overstating the historic significance of Friday's release of a draft permit to mine for a copper-nickel operation may not be possible.
"This is the first nonferrous permit to mine draft issued in the state of Minnesota. And it's the result of a lot of hard work," Moore said. "As the first proposed copper-nickel mine in Minnesota, we have a huge incentive to do it properly. People are watching, and we aim to meet those expectations. ...
"When you start getting the draft permits and public notice you're at the stage where the public is able to see the conditions we'll be required to meet in order to mine and meet water and air and other standards. And it's really the last major regulatory step in eventually being given the permission to build this mine," Moore said. "It's a really large step."
And one that shouldn't be taken without ample public input, especially on the regulations and requirements that will ensure environmentally safe mining operations.
A pair of public open houses and public hearings are scheduled in Aurora and in Duluth next month as part of a 60-day public-comment period on draft permit to mine for PolyMet. The draft permit to mine was released Friday by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
The hearings will be:
• Feb. 7 in Mesabi East High School from 4-9 p.m. with the public-comment period from 6-9 p.m.
• Feb. 8 at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center from 1-9 p.m. with the public-comment period from 6-9 p.m.
To review the permit to mine or to submit comments online, go to polymet.mn.gov/.
Written comments can be mailed to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Division of Lands and Minerals, 500 Lafayette Road, Box 45, St. Paul, MN 55155-4045.
The deadline for comments is March 6.
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