DNR: PolyMet mine safeguards would protect NE Minn. environment

The PolyMet concentrator building
The findings in an environmental report released Friday will go a long way to deciding the fate of a PolyMet Mining project near Hoyt Lakes, Minn. Here, the PolyMet concentrator building stretches for almost half a mile near Aurora, Minn.
Derek Montgomery | For MPR News 2013

Updated 3:25 p.m. | Posted 1:05 p.m.

A milestone Minnesota Department of Natural Resources report says PolyMet's plans to control pollution from a proposed massive copper-nickel mine are strong enough to protect the region's natural resources.

The long-awaited final environmental review released Friday generally agrees with PolyMet's models that conclude mine runoff would not flow into the Boundary Waters or Voyaguers National Park and will run at volume low enough that only a relatively low level of polluted water could escape the company's planned water treatment systems.

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The report, however, acknowledges that water treatment systems would need to be kept in place "indefinitely" at both the mine and processing sites should they be built.

"The project as proposed meets state standards ... to maintain a safe environment for people and the environment," DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr told reporters at an afternoon press conference.

"We would not have put out a document that we did not think was adequate," he said. "Unless we hear compelling evidence that we have missed the mark ... (it's) going to be a high bar to determine it's not adequate."

This report is similar in its scope and findings to the preliminary environmental draft the DNR made public in June.

That preliminary report drew applause from PolyMet and scorn from project critics who believe the company's plans to treat water from the mine's leftover waste and abandoned mine site don't include enough safeguards to protect northeast Minnesota's fragile environment.

Those divisions are likely to continue. PolyMet supporters and critics are so divided over the data and the science, the DNR's conclusions are unlikely to end the fight. At this point, they only agree that the stakes are huge and that the findings will affect northeast Minnesota for decades.

Since PolyMet first proposed the controversial mine more than a decade ago, it has generated consternation among environmentalists. Copper-nickel mining creates potentially more severe water pollution risks than the iron mining that has long supported the region. But the plan also has fostered economic hope on the Iron Range.

PolyMet promises to create hundreds of good paying jobs in an area that has been hit hard by mining layoffs this year.

The DNR report Friday sees the project creating as many as 500 direct jobs during peak construction and 360 direct jobs during operations.

It also calculates the mine would pay federal, state, and local taxes of $80 million annually when operating and pump about $231 million per year in direct economic value to the region through wages and rents and $332 million per year in "direct output related to the value of the extracted minerals."

There's still a long way to go in the process, although the Friday report signaled that the DNR alone would not stand in the way of the project moving ahead.

Gov. Mark Dayton has taken a hands-on interest in the project and will have a major influence on whether it's allowed to go forward.

Landwehr told reporters that with 20 permits still needed it was premature to say the project will happen.

PolyMet wants to mine copper, nickel and precious metals for 20 years at a site located just north of Hoyt Lakes, Minn., in the Superior National Forest. The NorthMet Deposit is part of what is known as the Duluth Complex, which stretches from about 150 miles north of Duluth to the Canadian border.

The company has tried to demonstrate for years that its plan would avoid scenarios that infuriate environmentalists.

PolyMet CEO Jon Cherry said Friday the company will provide more detail during the permitting process on its safeguards.

"People sometimes forget, the business actually has a huge financial interest to do it right," he said.

"Our business and livelihood depends on this. If we don't do it right, we'll get shut down. If we don't do it right, we'll never get to do another one again," he added. "We actually have a huge business incentive to ensure that this is done correctly."

Business and labor groups Friday quickly praised the DNR's report.

It "sets the stage for PolyMet's copper-nickel mine to bring needed job opportunities and positive economic impact to the entire state as well as northeastern Minnesota," the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and Minnesota Building and Construction Trades Council said in a statement.

Environmental groups, though, remained skeptical.

Kathryn Hoffman, attorney for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, disputed the DNR's contention that the mine project as proposed would be safe and meet all state water quality standards.

"That claim is based on faulty data. That science comes from PolyMet," she said.

"We're talking about a project that requires water treatment for hundreds of years, that has to be paid for by somebody," she said. "We're talking about a water treatment model that's based on faulty data that the company built and the DNR has never independently verified. There's a lot to be concerned about here."

Critics and supporters continue to duel over hydrology models, mine runoff projections and whether pollutants will roll away from, or toward, Minnesota's pristine Boundary Waters.

Polymet's findings are dramatically different than those of the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, which concluded that not only could contaminated water flow north toward the Boundary Waters, but that the volume could be 30 times greater than PolyMet's models suggest.

Asked why the state didn't seek out an objective third party to run the models, Landwehr said the state was effectively the third party.

"We are truly neutral," he told reporters. "We are neither in support of or opposed to the project. We've got the best expertise available to do the analysis. So I think the fact is, we've got the objective analysis done."

MPR News reporter Tim Pugmire contributed to this report.