The end of the comment period on the PolyMet environmental impact statement last week is one step forward for the Canadian-based mining company that is hoping to open the first non-ferrous mining …
The end of the comment period on the PolyMet environmental impact statement last week is one step forward for the Canadian-based mining company that is hoping to open the first non-ferrous mining operation in Minnesota later this year.
PolyMet officials maintain that they expect to begin mining at the company’s NorthMet site in late 2010, but that timeline appears increasingly difficult. Even should the state regulatory agencies complete their current EIS process by the summer, there’s yet another EIS that must be completed before mining operations can begin.
And that EIS process has yet to get underway.
The second EIS will be needed, according to company officials, to clear the way for a proposed land exchange with the US Forest Service. While PolyMet controls the mineral rights at the NorthMet site, the land at the surface is part of the Superior National Forest. The land was purchased by the federal government back in 1935, under authorization provided by the Weeks Act. Federal officials say prior court rulings have put restrictions on the kind of activities that are considered acceptable for lands acquired under the act. In addition, according for Superior National Forest Supervisor Jim Sanders, restrictions on the deed for the property, which was purchased from the Duluth Iron Range Railroad Company, also appear to limit the types of activities that can take place at the surface.
Forest Service legal counsel have determined that the combination of factors prohibits surface mining at the site. While PolyMet’s attorneys disagree with that decision, the company has opted against litigation, at least for now.
While the situation would not appear to forestall an underground mining operation, PolyMet officials contend an underground operation is too costly. Which means PolyMet must acquire the approximately 6,700 acres of federal land that sits above the deposit the company hopes to mine.
But acquiring large tracts of federal land is not a simple process. A proposal to allow PolyMet to purchase the land outright, without an environmental impact statement, died in the last session of Congress, and has left a complicated land exchange as the only other alternative.
“Administratively, our only authority is for a land exchange,” said Sanders.
The Forest Service and PolyMet have made progress towards identifying lands that could become part of the exchange. According to LeTisha Gietzen, PolyMet’s Vice President of Public, Governmental, and Environmental Affairs, the company submitted a feasibility analysis of a proposed swap last fall. The proposal is still being analyzed at the Forest Service’s regional office in Milwaukee.
If and when the proposal receives approval from regional officials, the environmental review process could get underway.
While company officials remain optimistic that the EIS can be completed quickly, Forest Service officials stress that the effort will take time. “There’s a feeling out there that this is a done deal and the land exchange is done,” said Kris Reichenbach, a Forest Service spokesperson in Duluth. “We are so very much at the beginning of the process. We haven’t even settled on a feasible proposal to move forward with. Once that is completed, that will the trigger the EIS.”
As of now, Forest Service officials are hopeful they can start that process soon, with public scoping of the issues sometime in early spring. But the typical 12-18 month time frame for an EIS could push the start of mining well into 2011.
Gietzen is hopeful that those timetables can be accelerated. “We still believe that we would be getting through both processes [permitting and FS EIS] in the second half of 2010,” Gietzen said. She noted that much of the environmental analysis on the effects of mining has already been done through the current EIS process, so the Forest Service review would not have to start from scratch. And PolyMet officials believe the hiring of a third party contractor could speed up the review process. “The federal rules do not require that the federal government conduct the work,” she said. “We’ve talked about that. We haven’t agreed but we’re still hoping for a third party to do the work,” said Gietzen.
While a third party could speed completion of the EIS document, full analysis of the impacts of a 6,700 acre exchange is almost certain to take considerable time. According to Sanders, the EIS would have to examine the impacts of the exchange not just for the mine site, but for the potentially large number of separate parcels the Forest Service would obtain through the exchange.
And even if the EIS can be drafted relatively quickly, requirements for public comment periods, appeals, and the possibility of litigation could well drag out final approval for 18 months or more. Forest Service officials note that it is all part of the process. “These are the steps we know we’ll need to take,” said Reichenbach. “They are complex and because of that, they do take some time.”