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Minnesota DNR: PolyMet’s EIS is adequate

By RON BROCHU  Updated Mar 4, 2016 (Business North)

PolyMet’s proposed copper-nickel-precious metals mining project advanced a step further Thursday when the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) said the company’s final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) meets requirements.

“The state’s decision validates both the Final EIS and the exhaustive process supporting the final document. This is an historic event for Minnesota, the Iron Range, and for PolyMet, clearing the path for permit applications required for construction,” PolyMet President and CEO Jon Cherry said in a written statement. “The EIS demonstrates and confirms that the NorthMet Project can be built and operated in accordance with state and federal regulations. We intend to continue to build trust through open dialogue and community involvement as we advance through permitting into construction and operations.”

The DNR’s determination, however, does not mean the company’s “NorthMet” project has been fully approved, nor may it proceed yet to construction. PolyMet must first obtain air, water and mining permits from the state of Minnesota. The company also must obtain wetlands permits from the Army Corps of Engineers. That process will begin by spring, said PolyMet Vice President of Corporate Communications Bruce Richardson.

It will be monitored closely by environmentalists, who fear the prospect of extracting sulfide ores. They argue that runoff from those ores produce sulfuric acid that pollutes water for hundreds of years if the materials are not handled properly.

PolyMet has committed to build a reverse osmosis water treatment plant. Within the mining permit, the company also is required to provide financial assurances that guarantee environmental standards are met during and after the project’s life. Opponents, however, suggest Minnesota regulators frequently provide exemptions to mining companies. They intend to continue their fight.

“This decision just marks the beginning of the real debate. It doesn’t mean that PolyMet is a done deal, and it definitely doesn’t mean it has been ‘approved,’” Aaron Klemz, advocacy director for Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, said in a Friday letter to members.

In an 85-page document, the DNR said the Final EIS addresses potentially significant issues and alternatives that have been raised. The department said it has responded to substantive comments received during the draft EIS and supplemental draft EIS involving issues of concern.

Through mid-December, the company had spent more than $98 million on environmental review and permitting, and the process is not over. In addition to submitting permit applications, PolyMet must develop definitive cost estimates and provide a project update.

“Minnesota’s process is long and cumbersome but assures the public’s participation,” said State Rep. Tom Anzelc, DFL-Balsam Township.

Additionally, the publicly traded firm must obtain construction financing. Construction and the ramp-up to commercial production is anticipated to take approximately two years. In its most recent quarterly report, PolyMet said it was in discussions with commercial banks and other financial institutions.

“There’s certainly more steps ahead, but this is an extremely important, giant, step,” said Frank Ongaro, executive director of Mining Minnesota, an industry association that advocates for the sustainable and environmentally responsible mining of copper, nickel and precious metals. Thursday’s decision, he added, is “important to PolyMet, to the industry and will create opportunities for working men and women and the state of Minnetota. This shows the system is working. We have a comprehensive, transparent system. It has taken a long time, but Polymet has demonstrated it has a solid project that can meet strict state standards and do it in an environmentally responsible manner.”

If further approvals are obtained, PolyMet intends to mine in the Duluth Complex near Hoyt Lakes. Mineral processing will occur about six miles away in the former Erie LTV plant, which is being repurposed for the project.

“NorthMet will produce metals that are essential building-blocks of renewable energy and the modern economy,” Cherry said. The clean energy applications he referred to include windmills, which typically need 10,000 pounds of copper, and hybrid motor vehicles, which need twice as much copper as standard cars and trucks. In terms of generating electricity, solar panels need twice as much copper per watt as windmills.

“Our focus remains on building the project in a manner that respects the things that matter most – supporting a safe and healthy community and protecting the environment – while generating returns to investors and creating good, well-paid, local jobs,” Cherry said.

According to Mining Minnesota, the Duluth Complex contains the world’s second largest copper deposit, the third largest nickel deposit and the second largest platinum-group metals deposit.

Precious minerals also are evident elsewhere in Northeastern Minnesota, and several other companies are interested in exploring the region for potential future mining. They include Twin Metals Minnesota, Kennecott, Vermillion Gold, Encampment Minerals, AngloGold Ashanti Ltd. and Teck American Inc.

“This decision sends a message to the global investment community that Minnesota welcomes their interest,” Ongaro said. “It’s an important message to investors around the world.”

But it won’t happen overnight, he noted.

“This is a culmination of decades of studies and permit simulations,” Ongaro said, referring to the overall development of responsible nonferrous minerals mining in Minnesota.

The U.S. Forest Service is reviewing comments on a related matter. PolyMet seeks to exchange some of its own parcels for USFS land in order to gain a title to surface rights above areas on which it has mineral leases.

The mines and processing facilities could generate $515 million per year, according to a University of Minnesota Duluth study. It says the company could directly support more than 300 full time jobs plus spinoff positions. Subsequent developments will generate a similar amount of employment.

Anzelc said he hopes the review process will accelerate in the future.

“I give Gov. (Mark) Dayton a lot of credit for the work he has already done to streamline the permitting process. But 10 years of review for a project that creates 300 jobs is just too long. I will continue to work with Gov. Dayton to bring sensible reforms to the permitting process,” Anzelc said.

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