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PolyMet clears another hurdle for copper-nickel mine

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 6/25/15

REGIONAL—The preliminary final version of the environmental impact statement for PolyMet Mining’s planned copper-nickel mine near Hoyt Lakes has cleared another hurdle on its way to the finish …

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PolyMet clears another hurdle for copper-nickel mine


REGIONAL—The preliminary final version of the environmental impact statement for PolyMet Mining’s planned copper-nickel mine near Hoyt Lakes has cleared another hurdle on its way to the finish line. Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr confirmed this week that a preliminary draft of the final EIS was completed Monday and is ready for review by the co-lead and cooperating agencies.

PolyMet CEO and president Jon Cherry called it “a significant milestone for the project,” but the completion of the final EIS is almost certainly still several months away.

While the state and federal agencies overseeing the study have been deeply involved in developing the 3,000-page document, Landwehr said a private consultant did much of the actual work of assembling it all. That means parts of the preliminary study haven’t been seen before by the agencies involved. Landwehr said the review is likely to take at least 6-10 weeks and it could well generate significant additional comments that would need to be addressed before a final document could be issued.

“How long that takes depends on how extensive the comments are,” said Landwehr. The commissioner said he’s given up trying to predict a date certain for anything related to the project, but he remains optimistic that a final version of the study could be released in the late fall.

Once released, the document is still subject to a 30-day public comment period on the adequacy of the study, and the agencies will need time, once again, to respond to any of those comments. Once that is completed, the lead agencies could issue their decisions on the adequacy of the final product.

What happens after that remains to be seen, said Landwehr.

“The EIS is an information document, not a decision document,” he said. “It’s not a foregone conclusion that having a final EIS means you have a permittable project.”

The final EIS will outline the anticipated environmental impacts of the proposed mine, which would be located in a complex wetland environment within the Superior National Forest. It would also outline mitigation measures that could reduce or eliminate the identified impacts.

“Ultimately, those mitigations could be incorporated in a permit to mine,” Landwehr said.

And the permitting process could well be time-consuming itself, and Landwehr said it isn’t guaranteed that PolyMet will eventually receive all the permits it will need to begin mining operations. “There are 21 different permits required before they can start mining,” he said, noting that denial of any of them could stymie the project.

While the finish line is still a ways down the road, supporters of the project were clearly pleased with the latest news.

“This is an enormous accomplishment on the part of the DNR,” said Nancy Norr, the board chair of Jobs for Minnesotans, a coalition of trade unions and industry groups that strongly backs the project. “The environmental review process for the NorthMet project has been extremely thorough.”

PolyMet officials praised the latest development and were already anticipating publication of the final draft. Cherry predicted the final document will show that PolyMet “can responsibly produce strategically important metals in a manner that is protective of natural resources and remediates legacy environmental impacts from historic mining operations.”

The study, when it is finally released publicly later this year, will incorporate more than a decade’s worth of review and analysis.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has led the environmental review along with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Forest Service as federal Co-lead Agencies. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and three Minnesota Chippewa bands have participated as Cooperating Agencies. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has also been actively involved.

The study incorporates analysis of and responses to approximately 58,000 comments on the supplemental draft EIS, which was published for public review in December 2013. The EPA issued comments on the supplemental draft EIS, which included an EC-2 rating, which is among the highest ratings that have been issued for a proposed mining project.

“After 58,000 public comments and EPA’s strong rating on the SDEIS, the PFEIS now reflects a solid foundation to build a modern mine and create hundreds of new well-paying jobs for Minnesotans,” Cherry said. “Northern Minnesota is currently reeling from layoffs this year in the mining industry associated with weak iron ore prices and the downturn in the domestic steel industry. Copper-nickel mining presents a tremendous opportunity to diversify and expand the mining economy on the Iron Range and put many miners and contractors back to work,” he concluded.

The project is expected to create hundreds of temporary construction jobs and about 360 long-term mining jobs, according to the company. Those numbers are less than originally projected by the company, and reflect the decision not to complete processing of copper at the mine site.


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