The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has issued a strong critique of an environmental review of PolyMet’s proposed NorthMet mine, located outside of Hoyt Lakes, Minnesota, and is recommending the mine “must not proceed as proposed.”
According to the agency, PolyMet’s project “may have substantial and unacceptable adverse impacts on aquatic resources of national importance.” The criticism comes months after a slew of state and federal politicians issued statements of support for the project, assuring the public and media the review was rigorous and the mine would not harm the environment.
In a December 9 support letter for PolyMet US Senator Al Franken told the state’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) the project should be approved:
“Throughout this multi-year process, PolyMet has done their due diligence and has faithfully followed the law. This includes providing all the necessary information for the draft environmental impact statement (EIS). The resulting draft describes the many steps PolyMet will take to minimize environmental impacts.”
In a similar letter, US Representative Jim Oberstar urged the DNR to approve PolyMet’s project:
“PolyMet has earned my support from the outset because of its responsible, innovative approach to nonferrous mining and processing; the DEIS does an excellent job of describing the many steps PolyMet will take to minimize environmental impacts.”
Oberstar and US Senator Amy Klobuchar tried introducing a bill that would allow PolyMet to directly own 6,700 acres of the Superior National Forest. The move would also eliminate requirements requiring consultation and cooperation with Native American tribes, under an 1854 treaty with the US government. Because the proposed site, located on public land, is protected from strip mining by the Weeks Act, passed in the early 1900s, PolyMet will either need special legislation or an equally controversial land exchange with the US Forest Service in order to proceed with its mine.
And just last week State Representative Tom Rukavina claimed, in an interview, that “this mine as it moves forward will be the most environmentally sound copper nickel mine I think in the world.”
In a letter to the St. Paul District of the US Army Corps of Engineers, Bharat Mathur, Acting Regional Administrator for the EPA’s Midwestern district, said the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for the project is “Environmentally Unsatisfactory-Inadequate” (the lowest rating possible) and would violate federal Clean Water Act requirements by contaminating ground and surface water with acidic mine drainage and mercury and destroy over 1,000 acres of high –quality wetlands. According to the agency, plans to combat acid mine drainage are “inadequate.”
The letter notes that the DEIS failed to include information on financial assurance and was missing much information on the tailings basin’s projected stability, impacts to groundwater and surface water, and impacts to wetlands.
According to the EPA, “The project will result in unacceptable and long-term water quality impacts, which include exceeding water quality standards, releasing unmitigated wastewater discharges to water bodies (during operation and in the post-closure period), and increasing mercury loadings into the Lake Superior watershed.”
The EPA’s letter confirms criticisms coming from citizen groups and environmentalists that the project would destroy valuable wetlands and pollute groundwater and surface water feeding into Lake Superior.
“The EPA decision to rate the PolyMet DEIS as ‘environmentally unsatisfactory-inadequate’ confirms what our grassroots group has been saying for the past 5 years,” said Elanne Palcich, a retired school teacher from the Iron Range. ”This type of mining cannot be done in the wetland environment of northeast Minnesota without polluting our waterways for centuries. There is nothing in this DEIS that demonstrates how water contamination from acid mine drainage can be prevented.
Late in 2009 the Friends of the Boundary Waters listed some concerns on the group’s website:
Water leaching from the waste rock piles is expected to be contaminated for up to 2,000 years
The West Mine Pit will overflow at Mine Year 65 (45 years after expected mine closure), contaminating the adjacent Partridge River with sulfates and heavy metals
Groundwater at the mine site is expected toexceed water quality standards
Due to structural instability, the tailings basin has a “low margin of safety”
The Minnesota DNR hired Environmental Resources Management (ERM), based out of London, England to conduct the DEIS.
In December, Al Trippel, an environmental consultant with ERM, gave a presentation on PolyMet’s DEIS that outlined environmental concerns related to the review as well as unrelated information claiming the project would benefit the regional economy.
Trippel has been actively involved in new mining proposals in the region for years. Trippel acted as Aquila Resource’s representative throughout Michigan’s “Part 632″ statute and rules process, from 2004 through 2005 that crafted legislation regulating the metallic sulfide mining industry. Trippel is currently on Aquila’s payroll, and was responsible for conducting baseline environmental studies necessary prior to submitting a mine application for the company’s proposed “Back Forty” project, located along the Menominee River, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Aquila plans to submit a mining application for the project this year.
Minerals Processing Corporation, a Minnesota company associated with Aquila, was recentlydenied a “conditional use permit” to explore for minerals in Carlton County, Minnesota. In 2006 Kennecott (a subsidiary of Rio Tinto) was denied a similar permit in Aitkin County. Kennecott sued the county and was supported by the Minnesota Court of Appeals. The court complained that county commissioners were too “heavily influenced by public opposition” and argued that the public had no legal right to stop a mining project in Minnesota. The company is now promoting the “Tamarack” copper and nickel project to investors.
According to a news release, PolyMet is viewing the EPA’s criticism as just another part of the process.
The Final EIS will likely incorporate many of the suggestions from the EPA and others that have been proposed during the public comment period. The intent of the draft EIS process is to use the comments on the DEIS to improve the proposed project that will be documented in the Final EIS. The Final EIS will be subject to public review before being declared “adequate” by the MDNR and receiving a “record of decision” by the USACE. Once the comments have been fully analyzed, the MDNR and the USACE will establish a timetable for completion of the Final EIS and subsequent permitting.
Similarly, in Michigan, Rio Tinto’s Humboldt Mill project received sharp criticism from the EPA and the US Fish and Wildlife Service in June 2009. Yet, by January 2010, the agencies had retracted their opposition so long as Rio Tinto adequately monitors the pollution.