MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — A proposal for Minnesota's first copper-nickel mine takes a crucial step forward Friday when regulators release a long-awaited updated environmental review that's certain to fuel the debate over whether the state can get the hundreds of jobs a new era of mining could bring without sacrificing its cherished waters and wild places.
Regulators sent PolyMet Mining Corp. back to the drawing board in 2009 when they rejected the original environmental impact statement for the planned open-pit mine near Babbitt and processing plant near Hoyt Lakes. The upcoming version has grown to around 1,900 pages, and PolyMet says it's confident the document will show that it can operate without harming the environment. The company hopes to start mining in early 2015.
"This is an extremely important milestone for this company. ... We're very confident that the review will show we will be able to mine in a way that's safe for the environment," said Jon Cherry, president and CEO.
But environmental groups aren't reassured by recent drafts, particularly the recent conclusion of state regulators that PolyMet's wastewater may require treatment for up to 500 years at a cost of billions of dollars.
They also fault the agencies involved for not requiring as part of the review that PolyMet detail the financial assurances it will be required by law to provide to cover cleanup and ongoing treatment costs, for after the mine closes, to assure that taxpayers aren't stuck with the bill.
"To me the biggest thing is this whole question about 500 years of pollution for 20 years of jobs," said Paul Austin, executive director of Conservation Minnesota, one of several groups campaigning against the project. "The people of Minnesota really need to be part of a conversation and decide for themselves if that's a good deal. And it doesn't sound like one to me."
Cherry said PolyMet will set aside sufficient financial reserves that will last as long as necessary, but he pointed out that the state isn't requiring those guarantees until later when it gets to the permitting process.
Copper-nickel mining raises new pollution issues that weren't major problems for Minnesota's long-established iron mining industry. The big copper, nickel and precious metals reserves underneath the state's northeast are part of a separate geological formation just south and east of the Iron Range called the Duluth Complex. The nonferrous metals are chemically bound up in sulfur compounds that can release sulfuric acid, sulfates, heavy metals and other contaminants when exposed to water and air. That's why environmentalists call it sulfide mining, a term the industry disdains.
PolyMet has made "significant improvements" to its original plans, Cherry said. One key change is the addition of a reverse osmosis water treatment plant. Another is a better containment system for the tailings basin. The new version also calls for cleaning up pollution from old mining operations and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, he said.
The project has strong supporters because of the 360 permanent jobs and over 600 related jobs the company says will be created in an economically struggling part of the state, along with the temporary construction jobs.
"Definitely we can have jobs and a clean environment," said Frank Ongaro, executive director of the trade group Mining Minnesota. "This is a second-to-none phenomenal opportunity for providing high-wage-paying jobs to Minnesota, and the taxes and the spinoff jobs, and everything it will bring for economic development."
But the critics say the changes detailed in the updated review are insufficient to keep contaminated water from escaping into the watershed that feeds Lake Superior if something goes wrong, such as a pipeline breaking, the treatment plant failing, a barrier leaking or torrential rainstorms. They consider PolyMet's contingency planning inadequate. And they distrust the complex computer modeling that's at the heart of much of the new analysis.
"The worst time to make decisions about how you're going to handle an emergency is when the emergency occurs," said Kathryn Hoffman, staff attorney with the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy.
Stakeholders on both sides of the debate are watching the environmental review process closely because it's expected to set the pattern for future copper-nickel projects, such as the proposed Twin Metals mine near Ely, a site that lies within a different watershed that flows into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
The new document is formally known as the "supplemental draft environmental impact statement." It describes the project, its expected effects and efforts to eliminate or reduce those effects. Its release will kick off a public comment period and meetings where citizens and stakeholders can weigh in. Agencies involved in the environmental review will consider those comments when they prepare the final version, which is expected to be released in the first half of 2014.
Then the formal process for deciding whether to approve the mine begins, said Steve Colvin, deputy director of the Ecological and Water Resources Division at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the lead agency.
PolyMet will need to earn permits from several state and federal agencies. It will need a permit to mine and other authorizations from the DNR. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency must decide on air and water quality permits. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will consider a wetland impacts permit. All of the major permits will have their own public comment processes that will allow for more input, he said.
The DNR plans to unveil the document Friday, announce how long the comment period will last, and set dates and venues for the public meetings. The DNR is also preparing fact sheets to help citizens make sense of the 1,900 pages, he said.
"We recognize that people will have some difficulty navigating this rather dense document," Colvin said.
Minnesota DNR: http://www.dnr.state.mn.us
Go PolyMet company-sponsored site: http://www.gopolymet.com
Mining Truth site sponsored by opponents: http://www.miningtruth.org