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EPA: Major problems with PolyMet EIS

Feds say environmental impacts identified in EIS are unacceptable

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 2/27/10

Officials with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency say the planned PolyMet mining operation near Hoyt Lakes should not go ahead, at least as currently proposed.

The agency offered its …

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EPA: Major problems with PolyMet EIS

Feds say environmental impacts identified in EIS are unacceptable

Posted

Officials with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency say the planned PolyMet mining operation near Hoyt Lakes should not go ahead, at least as currently proposed.

The agency offered its opinion in a Feb. 18 comment letter to the Army Corps of Engineers, which has jurisdiction over some of the permits PolyMet will need before it can move ahead with plans for copper-nickel and precious metals mining at its NorthMet deposit.

The EPA offered its comments as part of its examination of the adequacy of the draft Environmental Impact Statement on the project.

“Our review has identified adverse environmental impacts that are of sufficient magnitude that EPA believes the proposed action must not proceed as proposed,” stated Bharat Mathur, acting regional administrator for the EPA. Given its opinion, the agency is giving the draft EIS an “Environmentally Unsatisfactory-Inadequate” rating. That means that the agency has found that environmental impacts outlined exceed those permitted in law and must be mitigated before the project can move ahead. It also means that the current draft EIS has failed to adequately assess all of the water quality impacts, and that more analysis will likely be necessary.

The letter signals that state and federal regulatory agencies may need to conduct additional research and develop more mitigation measures before the project could be considered for permitting, but it does not mean the project is halted. The EPA letter indicates the agency plans to work with state and federal regulators in an effort to improve the impact analysis as well as mitigation measures should the project move ahead.

Under the law, substantive comments need to be addressed as part of the EIS process. “All of the comments will need to be addressed,” said Jon Ahlness, who is coordinating the environmental review for the Army Corps of Engineers. The Army Corps is the lead federal agency in the review process. The state review is overseen by the Department of Natural Resources.

The EPA comment letter is one of approximately 3,800 separate comments that regulators have received in response to the PolyMet draft EIS. Ahlness said his office is currently catagorizing all of the comments, and will be posting them online by sometime next week. Those comments will be available at www.mvp.usace.mil, under the “Regulatory” portion of the website.

Whether the EPA is the only agency to take such a position on the adequacy of the EIS remains to the seen. Other agencies, including some tribal entities, had expressed similar concerns about the adequacy of a preliminary EIS draft circulated last summer.

EPA’s concerns

The 29-page EPA letter focuses primarily on impacts to water quality and wetlands associated with the project, as well as financial assurance. “The DEIS projects that water quality standards will be exceeded for sulfates and other contaminants,” notes the letter. “The proposed project would fill approximately 1,000 wetland acres, largely high quality and forested, and indirectly affect approximately 500 more acres,” stated the letter.

The biggest water quality concern focuses on the acid runoff from exposed sulfide ores and waste rock. “The project’s proposed operation and post-closure management plan for acid-generating waste rock and wastewater is inadequate and needs to be improved. The proposed approaches to manage acid generation are untested or unproven at the proposed scale,” stated the EPA. The agency is recommending that more hydrogeological analysis be done to determine how acid runoff would impact both surface and groundwater.

EPA officials are also concerned about impact to a wetland complex they say has national significance. “With impacts to over 1,000 acres of wetlands, the DEIS provides incomplete and inadequate compensation for the loss of wetlands and their function. Indirect impacts to wetlands are not completely identified or compensated for in the mitigation plan,” according to the EPA letter.

The EPA is also calling for inclusion of financial assurance provisions as part of the EIS, because “long-term post-closure treatment will be necessary to protect water quality.”

EPA letter part of the process

Regulatory officials say the EPA letter, as with other comments, is part of the environmental review process, and will be considered and responded to just like other comments. Ahlness said no decisions have been made as yet on whether the project will move forward or not. “A lot of people have the misperception that the Corps is supporting the project. We are not for the project or opposed to the project,” he said. The job of the EIS is to identify the environmental implications of the project, and officials say letters like EPA’s help them to meet that objective.

How long it might take to actually complete the process is hard to say, according to Ahlness. If officials decide that additional analysis or modeling is required, the work could take months to complete. “I can’t give any kind of timeline at this point,” said Ahlness. “At this point, we’re still cataloguing all the comments.”

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