EPA asked to measure mining's effects on Lake Superior

Representatives of 59 Midwestern groups asked the Environmental Protection Agency today to consider the cumulative effects of mining across the Lake Superior basin, including from the proposed PolyMet copper-nickel mine.

The organizations, including tribal and conservation groups and businesses in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, sent a formal letter (posted below) to the EPA asking the agency to prepare a cumulative effects assessment that would weigh how long-term mining activities, including mining in sulfur-bearing rock, would affect the Lake Superior basin.

The request comes less than two weeks after the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and its federal partners released a nearly 2,200 page environmental analysis of PolyMet Mining's proposed copper-nickel mine in northeast Minnesota. The EPA helped prepare the draft supplemental environmental impact statement.

The massive document details PolyMet's project and the potential for it to affect the environment, and how the company plans to mitigate those effects.

But the organizations want the EPA to consider the effects of the PolyMet project along with those of other mining projects in the region - including the Eagle copper mine under construction in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and Gogebic Taconite's proposed iron ore mine in northern Wisconsin.

"A Cumulative Effects Assessment is the only way we'll know what is going to be the total effects on our natural resources and on our human beings, both in Minnesota, and in our neighboring states of Wisconsin and Michigan," said Paula Maccabee, Counsel/Advocacy Director for WaterLegacy, one of the 59 groups that sent the letter to the EPA.

Maccabee said cumulative assessment of air and water pollution from mining projects in the Lake Superior watershed has never been conducted before.

The draft EIS of the PolyMet proposal includes an entire chapter assessing the cumulative effects of the mine, in addition to several taconite mines presently operating in the vicinity and recently closed. It also includes other nearby facilities like power plants and waste water treatment facilities.

That makes the groups' request to the EPA "a little puzzling," PolyMet spokesman Bruce Richardson said.

"That's called for under the National Environmental Policy Act and also under the Minnesota Environmental Policy Act," he said. "So if people have concerns about that subject, then they should be making those concerns known in this public comment period that we're in right now."

The environmental and other groups are pushing for a broader analysis. The EIS only looks at impacts to the Embarrass and Partridge Rivers. The groups are asking for a closer assessment of projects around the entire Lake Superior basin.

EPA Region 5 Spokeswoman Phillippa Cannon confirmed the agency received the letter and is reviewing it. She didn't know how long it would take to respond to the request.

The public has until March 13, 2014 to comment on the environmental impact statement for the PolyMet Mining proposal.

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