DFLers grill PolyMet over mining pollution fears

A group of state lawmakers heard more than five hours of testimony Tuesday on how PolyMet Mining would pay for future cleanup costs.

The House committee hearing became tense at times as DFL lawmakers critical of PolyMet's copper-nickel proposal grilled officials from both the Department of Natural Resources and PolyMet on how financial assurance would be calculated.

Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, said she's concerned there's not enough data to predict how mining pollution could enter groundwater.

"You have to assume the worst, and that is one of the problems in dealing with the financial assurance here," Wagenius said. "If we don't know what's going on underground, we don't know how the water is flowing, what do we assume for dollars to take care of a problem that we can't define?"

Industry officials responded that Minnesota's financial assurance rules are among the strongest in the nation and will protect the state's taxpayers.

"The state protects the taxpayer by having the authority to deny, revoke, suspend or modify a permit and issue civil penalties if necessary," said Frank Ongaro with Mining Minnesota. "As taxpayers we should all be glad that Minnesota will not only be protected but that we will benefit from PolyMet."

But the committee also heard from financial experts who said state officials should be wary of the risks and uncertainty.

"My request to our elected officials is to be wary of overestimated benefits and underestimated costs and risks," said John Gappa, who has served as a chief financial officer for several companies. "Once PolyMet exposes the sulfur-laden ore to the elements, Minnesota does not want to be facing our own 'too big to fail' scenario."

An environmental study predicts long-term water treatment will be needed at the site to prevent pollutants from reaching the Lake Superior watershed.

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