The future of copper-nickel mining in Minnesota suffered a setback last month when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a critical review of the PolyMet mine proposal.
Vancouver-based mining company, PolyMet is the first of several companies hoping to mine copper, nickel, and other precious metals on the Iron Range in northeastern Minnesota. Known as non-ferrous, or sulfide mining, it’s highly controversial and has never been allowed in Minnesota before. The environmental review of the Polymet project has been under way for close to five years and is a joint state and federal process led by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). A draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for the project was released in October of 2009, and last month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a highly critical 25 page review of the document. The agency gave the draft EIS its lowest ranking possible, EU-3, or Environmentally Unsatisfactory – Inadequate.” Many of the issues raised in the EPA review mirror those voiced by three Native American bands in northeastern Minnesota involved in the environmental review process. Nancy Schuldt is Water Projects Coordinator with the Fond du Lac band of Lake Superior Chippewa. She’s been working with the Bois Forte and Grand Portage bands to provide analysis and commentary on the PolyMet proposal.
“I’m really gratified to see that their analysis so closely addresses the same issues that the tribes have been trying to raise during the course of the environmental analysis all along. And I think that it’s extremely significant, because the EPA doesn’t issue this kind of ranking very frequently, maybe once a year. So, the fact that they saw fit to point out such glaring deficiencies in this EIS at this time means that these problems that we’ve been talking about, with the water quality issues and the wetland impacts and problems with long-term treatment, etc, and they’re very real issues and they really have to be addressed. The project can’t move forward as it’s currently described,” said Schuldt.
Steven Colvin is Environmental Review Supervisor for the Minnesota DNR. He sees a silver lining in the dark cloud of the EPA review:
“You know, in a lot of ways, you know the comments are critical but in a lot of ways, we kind of consider this a good thing because EPA also has, in addition to the authority, and I think, more importantly, they have a lot of expertise and experience in water quality issues and whatnot, related to non-ferrous mining, that they now seem willing to help us apply to this EIS,” said Colvin.
The next step, according to Colvin, is for the DNR and Army Corps to review the thousands of public comments received on the PolyMet proposal.
“EPA’s was one of about 3,800 pieces of comment correspondence that we received. So, we’re currently in the process of reviewing, carefully reviewing and cataloguing and analyzing all the comments that we got. We’re trying to determine where comments are providing us additional information that we might use or recommending additional data or additional analysis that might be done in trying to find common themes and weave a path forward, and the EPA comments of course are a very significant part of that, but they’re not the only part of that,” said Colvin.
Colvin says the DNR and the Army Corps will also need to sit down with the EPA to discuss the agency’s comments and address its concerns about the draft Environmental Impact Statement for the PolyMet mine.
“You know, at the end of the day, at the end of the process, what both the corps and DNR want is a final EIS that adequately identifies environmental impacts and alternatives and mitigation that could address those environmental effects,” said Colvin.
The Lake Superior Chippewa tribes want the same thing, says Nancy Schuldt, and they’re pleased with the EPA review.
“We’re feeling pretty good about it, not because we got into this to see it fail. We got into it to make sure that the environmental review considered everything carefully, including the viewpoint of the tribes, and addressed our concerns about protecting trust resources and clearly, it didn’t hit that mark, yet. So, if they want to move forward they’re going to have to do substantially more work,” said Schuldt.
The State Senate Committee on Environment and Natural Resources held hearings to discuss the PolyMet mine proposal and consider the “Safe Mines to Protect Our Waters” bill last week. At the conclusion of the hearings, the author of the bill, Senator Jim Carlson, (DFL-District 38) withdrew the legislation. A hearing on the companion house bill, authored by Representative Alice Hausman, (DFL-District 66B) is scheduled for Thursday, March 18.
The “Safe Mines to Protect Our Waters” bill was introduced in January and is intended to strengthen state laws requiring a damage deposit, or financial assurance, from mining companies. The bill has drawn fierce opposition from Iron Range legislators who say it would amount to a back-door ban on non-ferrous mining in Minnesota, but supporters of the legislation say that because of the toxic nature of sulfide mining, and its record of environmental contamination in other states, the bill is necessary to adequately protect Minnesota taxpayers from being left with expensive clean-up and water treatment costs.