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EPA gives PolyMet mine study a passing grade, with conditions

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Aerial view
PolyMet Mining Corp. wants to use the former LTV Steel Mining Co. facility near Hoyt Lakes for its copper-nickel processing plant.
Mark Sauer/Associated Press/File

The environmental study on the proposed PolyMet copper-nickel mine needs some changes and further analysis but will be ready to move to the final phase of environmental review, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials said Thursday.

More: Copper-nickel mining stories, photos and video

"We appreciate the extensive improvements to the project and the clarity and completeness of the environmental review that are reflected in the [supplemental draft environmental impact statement]," EPA officials wrote in a letter to the regulators overseeing the review, including the state Department of Natural Resources.

Here's that letter:

The assessment was far better than the rating PolyMet's environmental study received four years ago. Then, the EPA said then that the study provided an inadequate assessment of the proposed mine's effects on the environment.

EPA officials said the new study still contains environmental concerns and that the study should include more information to assess environmental impacts.

Despite the need for additional information and analysis, PolyMet officials celebrated the EPA's assessment.

"This rating demonstrates the significant improvements PolyMet has made to the project in response to previous public and regulatory comments," PolyMet President and CEO Jon Cherry said.

The DNR collected more than 49,000 comments on the document. Dozens of people will work in the coming months to read every comment, categorize them and begin responding to them. Some will lead to new analyses that will appear in the final environmental impact statement.

It's not clear how long that process will take, said Steve Colvin, the agency's deputy director for water and ecological resources.

"It's going to be a lot of work for us moving forward but people certainly have engaged, and that's important," he said.

While PolyMet and DNR officials were pleased with the passing grade, some environmental groups had hoped the EPA would be more critical of the project and hold it back from going onto the final step of the review.

Kathryn Hoffman, an attorney for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy said major unanswered questions remain.

"It should be concerning from the perspective of the [DNR, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Forest Service] that this facility has been in environmental review for almost a decade and there are still questions that we still don't have the answers to," Hoffman said.

  For example, Hoffman said, the DNR still has not identified how long water treatment will be needed at the site, or how much financial assurance will be required to pay for that treatment. The EPA instructed the DNR and the other agencies to clarify projected water treatment timeframes, but it's unclear whether that means the final environmental impact statement will answer the question.

  DNR officials have said in the past that the analysis wasn't designed to answer the question of how many years because it was assumed to be long-term.

But mining supporters said the EPA's rating reflects improvements to the proposal, like reverse osmosis water treatment plants and a cutoff wall around the tailings basin to prevent polluted water from escaping.

Frank Ongaro, executive director of the industry group Mining Minnesota welcomed the EPA's assessment.

"It demonstrates that there's a tremendous opportunity for the state of Minnesota to have a project that is going to be done environmentally soundly and provide needed jobs for the citizens of the state," he said. "The EPA rating shows that PolyMet has a very solid project."

Betsy Daub of Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness disagreed. She said that the EPA says the environmental impact statement contains insufficient information. 

"That means they really can't assess the environmental impacts that need to be avoided to fully protect the environment. And it's pretty shocking after four years of additional work, that's where we are today," she said.

Don Arnosti of Audubon Minnesota likened the EPA's improved report card to the student who's allowed to go on to the next grade level even if he or she isn't ready.

"There's a societal pressure to just move things along. I had high standards for my children and their schoolwork and when we're talking about natural resources with potentially centuries of impacts from this decision, this is not the time to say let's just move it along," he said.

MPR News reporter Dan Kraker contributed to this report.