The federal Environmental Protection Agency sees "significant progress" in the environmental review of the proposed PolyMet mining project in northeast Minnesota, a marked contrast to the agency's stance three years ago.
PolyMet proposes to mine copper, nickel and precious metals near Hoyt Lakes.
The latest assessment came in an Aug. 7 letter from Alan Watts, the enforcement and compliance assurance director at the EPA's regional office in Chicago.
The letter was sent to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers - St. Paul District and several other groups involved in drafting the preliminary environmental review. The EPA said "it reflects significant progress in designing and clearly documenting the project."
Three years ago the EPA sharply criticized the project's first environmental impact statement. But the federal agency has cooperated on the new review, which incorporates several environmental changes.
PolyMet spokeswoman LaTisha Gietzen says the company is encouraged by the letter.
"We see this as a very positive step forward in the process," Gietzen said.
Environmental groups caution the letter shouldn't be interpreted as an endorsement of the project.
Kathryn Hoffman, attorney with the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, cautions not to read too much into it.
"I don't think the letter should be interpreted as an endorsement, either tacit or explicit, of the project. This is 14 pages of concerns."