The federal Environmental Protection Agency has filed a letter with Minnesota regulators that appears to signal support of the final environmental impact statement for the proposed PolyMet copper mining project near Hoyt Lakes.
The Region 5 EPA’s letter filed Monday was one of thousands received by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. It stopped short of endorsing the project — that’s not under the EPA’s purview — but the letter from federal regulators is considered important because it appears to say most of the agency’s concerns about the years-long environmental review process have been addressed.
The EPA says concerns raised in recent months about public health issues from mercury and dust, groundwater flow and the effect on species such as moose can be addressed by other agencies — namely the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Forest Service that have authority over a critical wetlands permit and land exchange for the mine site.
“The FEIS adequately resolves EPA’s comments on the Preliminary FEIS pertaining base flow and cumulative impacts, model calibration and contradictory information. EPA’s remaining comments… can and should be addressed in the USFS Record of Decision, in the Corps permit evaluation process which culminates in a (record of decision), and/or in the context of other permitting reviews as appropriate,” the letter notes.
PolyMet spokesman Bruce Richardson said he was aware of the letter but had not yet seen it.
Paula Maccabee, attorney for the group Water Legacy, said she received a copy and that the EPA’s comments are not surprising.
“The EPA seems like they are keeping their powder dry. But they don’t have veto power of the environmental review process and there are much bigger issues ahead now,” Maccabee said. “The EPA does have authority over the Corps of Engineers decision on Clean Water Act permits and we still have a long way to go on those decisions.”
Those decisions include whether PolyMet is allowed to destroy wetlands on the site and replace them in other areas.
The DNR is expected to decide early in 2016 whether the final environmental review, released in November, is technically “adequate.” DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr has already said the agency believes it is and that only compelling public comments could change that decision.
The public comment period on the state’s version of the environmental review ended Monday.
If the state does indeed sign off on the environmental review, it will trigger the company filing for the 23 permits needed to start work on the project and begin mining. It also could trigger the first lawsuits from opponents who continue to say the environmental review is inadequate.
PolyMet is proposing Minnesota’s first copper-nickel mine and processing center that would create about 300 jobs for about 20 years. Supporters say it will help diversify the Iron Range economy hit hard by the cyclical nature of iron ore mining. Critics say the project is likely to taint downstream waters with acidic runoff.
Gov. Mark Dayton has decided not to conduct a human health assessment of the proposed PolyMet copper mine project, agreeing with state regulatory officials that the study isn’t needed.
Health Commissioner Ed Ehlinger, Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr and Pollution Control Commissioner John Linc Stine agreed that the human health impacts of the project were well covered in the environmental review that is just now wrapping up after nearly 10 years.
“Governor Dayton agrees with their assessment,” a statement from the governor’s office said Monday afternoon.
The announcement comes just weeks after Dayton said he’d have health experts look at a human health assessment after he listened to concerns raised by health professionals from Duluth and across Minnesota.
But the commissioners said the issues raised by medical professionals already have been covered and that time is running out to conduct new reviews of what would be Minnesota’s first-ever copper mine.
“We have considered the information provided as the basis for these requests and have concluded that the FEIS (final environmental impact statement) adequately addressed public health impacts based on water and air quality evaluation criteria and regulatory standards that are protective of human health,” the commissioners wrote in a memo to Dayton.
The commissioners said conducting a health impact assessment at this point in the process would cause unnecessary delays and potential legal problems.
“It is still our strong opinion that (a health impact assessment) will not significantly inform the decisions regarding permits required for the project beyond the information already available,” they wrote. A health impact assessment “would have the potential to introduce unintended delay in decision making, legal risks, and public confusion about the” process.
The News Tribune first reported in February, 2014 that several physicians and public health officials were concerned that potential human health impacts from the copper mine had not been well addressed in the environmental review. Other groups joined, including the Minnesota Public Health Association, Minnesota Medical Association, Minnesota Citizens Federation Northeast, Healthy Food Action and Food and Water Watch Midwest Region.
The Statewide Minnesota Academy of Family Physicians, representing more than 3,000 family doctors, unanimously passed a resolution calling for a health-risk assessment of copper mining in Minnesota — especially an increase in mercury levels in an area where fish already have high mercury content, in some cases rendering them unsafe for children and women of childbearing age to eat.
“The voices of thousands of doctors, nurses and public-health professionals across the state of Minnesota trying to prevent toxic pollution and protect patients and communities deserve to be heard,” a group of Duluth doctors wrote in a letter to the editor in November. “We ask Gov. Mark Dayton and his commissioners to join our call for a thorough, independent and objective assessment of health risks related to the PolyMet sulfide mine project.”
Dayton last month said he would have state health officials to look at whether a separate health department study of the impacts was needed.
Dayton in recent weeks has come under pressure to get out of the way of the PolyMet project, including threats from Republican leaders in the House to hold up a special legislative session that would extend unemployment benefits for laid-off miners if the governor didn’t vow not to block PolyMet.
The governor’s decision “is very disappointing. It’s sad, because I think there’s the potential for some very serious health impacts,” said Dr. Deb Allert, a family practice physician in Two Harbors. “I think there is a lot of political pressure going on here.”
Paula Maccabee, attorney for Water Legacy, said the commissioners are wrong that human health impacts were well-covered in the environmental review.
Maccabee cited an independent review by a Canadian mercury expert who found the mine and processing center near Hoyt Lakes would create a significant risk of raising toxic methylmercury levels in local waterways, including the St. Louis River.
State and federal officials are expected to sign off on the final environmental review early in 2016, a move that could trigger the first lawsuits on the project. The company hopes to apply for and receive permits later in 2016.
PolyMet plans a $600 million open-pit mine and processing center near Hoyt Lakes — employing 300 people for 20 years or more — mining and processing copper, nickel, platinum, palladium and possibly other valuable metals.
Supporters say the project can be done without long-term harm to the environment, providing an economic boost to the regional economy that’s been hard hit by a downturn in iron ore mining.
Critics say the long-term potential for acidic runoff from copper-bearing rock, and other potential water pollution problems, isn’t worth the relatively short-term jobs created.
Dayton doubles down on PolyMet EIS
Governor vows no delay on mine project as he pushes for a special session
Posted: Tuesday, December 1, 2015 8:46 pm (Mesabi Daily News)
BILL HANNA Executive Editor
ST. PAUL — Gov. Mark Dayton on Tuesday gave assurances that “… neither I nor anyone in my administration will act to impede or delay the environmental or financial reviews of the PolyMet project, if the Final EIS (Environmental Impact Statement) is determined to be adequate.”
The governor’s statement was made in a letter to GOP House Speaker Kurt Daudt in an attempt to clear the way for a special session on an extension of unemployment benefits soon to expire for laid off Iron Range steelworkers and also to address financial disparities in the state’s black communities.
It was the strongest position yet taken by the governor to let science and state regulators determine the future of the PolyMet project near Hoyt Lakes.
The Final EIS was released by the Department of Natural Resources on Nov. 6 and is currently in a review process before the state Determination of Adequacy is resolved. If approved, it would then trigger the permitting process. DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr has said his agency would not have posted the EIS if it wouldn’t be deemed adequate.
The PolyMet copper/nickel/precious metals venture, which has received more than 10 years of environmental review, will create 350 permanent positions, hundreds more spin-off jobs and more than 2 million hours of construction.
A special session was initially considered by the governor and DFL leaders to extend jobless benefits for laid off steelworkers. Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk of Cook added a condition of some state aid to financially-troubled metropolitan black communities. The governor signed on to Bakk’s proposal.
Speaker Daudt then added his conditions: No interference by the governor on the PolyMet copper/nickel/precious metals project or the Enbridge Sandpiper Pipeline through Minnesota to transport oil from the Bakken fields in North Dakota to Superior, Wis.
In his letter to Daudt, Dayton said he has been a supporter of the pipeline and wants it approved and routed as soon as possible to reduce the “even greater risks to our citizens and to our environment from the rail transport of Bakken oil.”
But he said review of the Sandpiper project rests solely with the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, which, by statute, is independent of the governor’s office.
Dayton also said in his letter to Daudt that he has not tried to obstruct the PolyMet process, but volunteered his assurances on the issue anyway to “clear the slate for your agreement to a special session.”
But while Dayton has not specifically said he would try to block PolyMet, he has made statements that left the door open to interference.
In an interview with the Mesabi Daily News during the 2014 gubernatorial campaign, he said there was no hurry on the project because the minerals “aren’t going anywhere.” And recently, he reminded reporters that even though the final decision on PolyMet rests with the DNR and Commissioner Landwehr, he’s “Landwehr’s boss.”
Dayton, in his letter to Daudt, cited statistics to back up the urgent need for a special session.
He said mine workers on the Range “are facing significant economic hardship as a result of the global steel market and depressed prices as a result of steel dumping.”
Dayton said 1,433 workers have been affected by mining layoffs on the Range and applied for unemployment insurance benefits, with the majority of those applications filed between May and August.
There was hope they would be recalled to their jobs in the fall. But that has not happened, and more layoffs have since been announced at area mines.
“As you know, unemployment benefits for hundreds of mine workers, through no fault or choice of their own, will exhaust before the 2016 legislative session,” Dayton wrote.
Regarding the economic disparities for people of color in Minnesota, the governor cited statistics pointing a drop in median income and an increase in the poverty rate for black Minnesotans.
“I have added reducing Minnesota’s racial disparities to my proposed special session agenda, because we cannot ignore these problems any longer,” Dayton wrote.
The governor wants a special session to include a $15 million investment to improve economic conditions in communities of color.
County board backs PolyMet
Posted: Tuesday, December 1, 2015 8:45 pm (Mesabi Daily News)
Jerry Burnes Managing Editor
AURORA — With county officials meeting on the struggling East Range, the mining project that holds hope for new jobs in the area gained another endorsement Tuesday.
St. Louis County commissioners passed a resolution without objection to submit comment to the state Department of Natural Resources supporting the Final Environmental Impact Statement for the PolyMet mine near Hoyt Lakes, marking the board’s first on-the-record support of the project.
“These decision makers in St. Paul need constant re-enforcement to understand what we know on a daily basis,” said Commissioner Steve Raukar of Hibbing. “This has been a data-driven process that has uncovered every stone.”
Commissioner Keith Nelson of Fayal Township introduced the directive motion. Commissioners passed a motion supporting the EIS earlier this year.
The PolyMet copper/nickel/precious metals mine continues to make positive strides toward operation. Last month the DNR posted the FEIS and opened a 90-day comment period on the controversial project before a state Determination of Adequacy decision. If the project is deemed adequate, the permitting process can begin.
Seen as a light at the end of the tunnel, of sorts, East Range political leaders on hand for Tuesday’s meeting guided the County Board through the economic struggles that make PolyMet and its 350 jobs critical to their cities.
With idling mines across the central Range and North Shore regions, the outlook for a secondary economic impact is grim without the project. This year alone, the East Range lost its Minnesota Power office and Mesabi Nugget in Hoyt Lakes, while Aurora is down to its only dentist and, as of August, its drug store.
“We know our condition on the east end of the Range,” said Aurora Mayor Mary Hess. “We have felt it for a long time. We are struggling, our businesses are struggling.”
And if all the businesses already lost weren’t enough, the community is keeping close eyes on Zup’s Food Market, Aurora’s only grocery store, which is teetering on closing.
“We’re very close to losing our grocery store,” said Aurora City Councilor David Lislegard. “How many communities do you know that don’t have a grocery store?”
Hoyt Lakes Mayor Mark Skelton echoed sentiments from Aurora.
Retail in his city is nonexistent, he said, but PolyMet and a biochemical plant in Mountain Iron are the needed boost to impact the entire Range. He asked those opposed to the projects to do their homework, noting PolyMet is only one example.
“We’re in the fight for our lives here. We don’t want to do it the wrong way,” Skelton said. “Everything in life is a gamble, but we’re hoping that has a direct effect on us on this end of the Range.”