REGIONAL— More than six months since the closing of public comment on the PolyMet Mining’s proposed copper-nickel mine near Hoyt Lakes, the Department of Natural Resources is still a few weeks …
REGIONAL— More than six months since the closing of public comment on the PolyMet Mining’s proposed copper-nickel mine near Hoyt Lakes, the Department of Natural Resources is still a few weeks away from fully categorizing all of the many thousands of comments that poured in from residents and organizations alike.
And while a coalition of environmental groups, known as Mining Truth, recently reported that 98.2 percent of the comments received by the DNR were opposed or critical of the mine proposal, DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr said his agency’s task of analyzing the 58,000 letters and emails the agency received is far more complex, and more time-consuming, than simply determining pro or con.
In fact, he said, that’s not something the DNR typically considers. “It’s not a referendum on the project,” said Landwehrs in an interview late last week with the Timberjay.
“We will look at every comment, but the purpose is to refine the information that’s included in the final environmental impact statement,” he said. “Our goal is to identify the comments that are substantive. A lot of them are electronically-submitted form letters.”
But some comment letters contain hundreds of specific issues and concerns, and Landwehrs said it’s up to DNR officials to isolate out each individual statement, or comment, that deals with a specific issue and to place it in a separate “bucket.” So far, said Landwehr, the DNR has between 7,000-8,000 different buckets, each reflecting a unique issue that the agency will need to address as it begins the work of crafting a final environmental impact statement.
While mine supporters are eager to see that work completed, Landwehr urged patience and was unwilling to specify any timetable for finishing the job. While simply categorizing the flood of comments has already taken more than six months, the job of actually addressing all of the comments in a meaningful way could take substantially longer. “There are 8,000 unique comments. Even if a quarter of those have any meat to them, that’s a lot to address. I put that out so people understand the challenge we face,” he said.
Indeed, it’s by far the largest such undertaking in state history, and that makes it difficult for state officials to even estimate when the job might be completed. Landwehr was blunt: “We don’t know how long it will take. We can’t even say months.”
That’s true, in part, because addressing some of the comments may require more information than officials have gathered so far. “It would not surprise me if we have to find new information, or if some remodeling is required,” said Landwehr. “But that’s the purpose of the comments. We want to do this right.”
A long road
PolyMet began its formal environmental review process in October 2005, and at the time the company hoped to have the document completed within two years, with construction set to begin shortly thereafter. That original review effort, however, took longer than company officials had hoped. Then, its first draft EIS, released in 2009, ran into trouble with the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which rated the document unsatisfactory.
It was back to the drawing board for the company and the regulatory agencies overseeing the review. Another four years later, the company released what it called its Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement, or SDEIS, this past November. At the time, PolyMet officials projected they would have the final SDEIS in hand by mid-2014, with permits and mine construction to follow by the third or fourth quarter of the year.
That timeline has, once again, proven optimistic, and it now appears highly unlikely a final SDEIS will be issued before the second half of 2015, and possibly much later than that. Once a final SDEIS is issued, the agencies must provide a 30-day public comment period before they can issue a final determination of its adequacy. “Even if we find it’s adequate, that doesn’t mean the project is approved,” said Landwehr.
At that point, the company can begin to apply for permits, a process that, by itself, could still take many months, possibly years. The company’s latest published timeline projects it will complete permitting in the first half of 2015, with construction set to begin in the second half of the year, and with actual mining underway by the second half of 2016.