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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

PolyMet project permitting process underway

Keith Vandervort
Posted 11/1/16

ELY – Kathryn Hoffman, interim director for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy (MCEA), recently discussed the proposed PolyMet sulfide mining project at a Tuesday Group …

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PolyMet project permitting process underway


ELY – Kathryn Hoffman, interim director for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy (MCEA), recently discussed the proposed PolyMet sulfide mining project at a Tuesday Group gathering.

The MCEA has been critical of PolyMet’s plans to mine and process copper, nickel and precious metals at its NorthMet deposit near Hoyt Lakes. It’s part of the Duluth Complex, a rich vein of minerals that stretches near the Iron Range and close to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness watershed.

Last spring, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources gave its final blessing to the environmental analysis of the PolyMet mine, paving the way for the company to begin applying for permits for the project.

The agency declared that the 3,000-plus page final environmental impact statement for the project is “adequate,” a bureaucratic determination that signals the end of the state’s portion of the environmental review.

For the past decade that process has pitted conservationists concerned about the potential for severe water pollution against Iron Range communities desperate for an economic jump-start.

“We’ve chosen to focus on PolyMet because it’s the first,” Hoffman said. She said other groups who have chosen to focus on the BWCA side of the Duluth Complex, like the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters’s fight against Twin Metals Minnesota, complement the work of the MCEA.

PolyMet describes their project as a brownfield site development, according to Hoffman. “It is a pristine area. There is no mine here now, and that’s an important thing to understand,” she said.

Like mining iron ore, mining for copper nickel is similar. The rock is blasted and brought to the surface and separated into ore and waste. The ore will be transported, by train, to an existing processing plant near Hoyt Lakes. “After going through a series of crushers, the end product is a fine powder which is recovered through a flotation process,” Hoffman explained.

She said the Duluth Complex is very low grade in quality and has not been mined because of that fact. “Less than one-percent of the rock in the Duluth Complex is targeted minerals,” she said. “That means there is a fair amount of waste rock.”

That waste, called tailings, has the consistency of a slurry and is stored in a basin. “This is old technology, it was built in the 1960s before the Clean Water Act and modern environmental review laws, and was designed to leak at a rate of about 2,000 gallons per minute,” Hoffman said.

She noted that PolyMet is planning to put a barrier around the tailings basin that is designed to collect some of the leakage. “PolyMet says they will collect 90 to 100 percent (of the leakage), but we disagree with that because we’ve never seen a barrier that works that effectively.”

The tailings basin at U.S. Steel’s Minntac plant collects about 55 percent of the wastewater leakage. “That seems like a more realistic approach,” she said.

Hoffman discussed the risk of a northward flow, in which untreated groundwater in the PolyMet pit seeps to the north, eventually entering the Rainy River watershed and flowing into the Boundary Waters.

“Once the tailings rock is deposited (in the basin) it just sits there,” Hoffman said. “It will sit there for decades and centuries and will remain a pollution run-off risk. Simply put, the water that PolyMet plans to collect cannot be safely released into the environment. It does noy meet (current) water quality standards.”

Hoffman admitted that PolyMet’s water quality models for the environmental impact statement do show a downward trend in the pollution levels. “It is probably safe to assume that at some point the sulfate discharges out of the waste rock piles will get better and maybe a little closer to water quality standards,” she said. “It is also safe to say that time is going to be well after 200 years.”

Environmentalists are often accused of making up or exaggerating the pollution scenarios. “These are not our numbers, these are PolyMet’s numbers,” she said.

She listed several conclusions reached by the MCEA:

‰ PolyMet’s mine proposal does not protect Minnesota‘s waters and risks long-term pollution;

‰Having completed the EIS, PolyMet has to apply for as many as 20 state and federal permits; and

‰All of the permits will likely be challenged in some manner.

Hoffman was asked a question not addressed by the numerous environmental and pollution studies: “How do we address the real failure of mining to create healthy communities?”

Hoffman said the EIS only addresses the potential for job growth. “We only see sort of one half of the ledger,” she said. “PolyMet expects to employee between 300 -350 people, some of them will be local and some of them will not . And they anticipate over 1,000 construction jobs during the course of the construction of the mine.”

She noted other impacts from a mining operation in a community, including the impact on the tourism industry and people coming into town to visit. “When I come into Ely now, I see a pretty healthy economy,” she said, “I see more storefronts. I see more restaurants. The school enrollment is growing. It seems like there is development here absent mining.”

She asserted that MCEA’s position is to not be against every mine. “The economic future of northern Minnesota is not going to be in one big new shiny single project that can go bust and leave an economy devastated in the blink of an eye. It is really about thinking broadly about how we can support the economy here with things like broadband Internet access and supporting local businesses that come from local people,” she said. “To me it is about thinking differently, and what kind of northern Minnesota we want to see and how to support that type of growth.”


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