ST. PAUL — Let the permitting begin! And most likely the lawsuits, too.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources on Thursday ruled that the Final Environmental Impact Statement for PolyMet’s NorthMet copper/nickel/precious metals mine project near Hoyt Lakes is adequate, which paves the way for permit application by the company.
The environmental review process is now complete for the first-ever nonferrous mine in Minnesota. Now it’s all about permitting.
DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr said the process leading to the completion of the state’s EIS has been deliberative and thorough.
“The environmental review process is about describing the potential environmental effects of the proposed NorthMet project,” Landwehr said Thursday afternoon. “We are confident this document has thoroughly examined the important environmental topics and has addressed them.”
The company has already spent more than $90 million for more than 10 years of environmental review.
PolyMet officials said they plan to submit permit applications shortly after today’s adequacy determination. Landwehr said his department has yet to receive any such applications.
A firm timetable for permitting, construction and plant startup would be speculative because about 20 state and federal permits must be secured.
“It will be 18 to 24 months of construction time from the last permit,” PolyMet CEO Jon Cherry said in a telephone interview with the Mesabi Daily News Thursday afternoon.
“This has been a long time coming. We couldn’t be more pleased. It’s been more than 10 years of hard and diligent work by a lot of people.”
Cherry said, “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,”
The project will create 360 permanent jobs, hundreds more in spin-off positions and 2 million hours of construction.
The determination of adequacy will now also likely trigger lawsuits filed by environmental groups. Litigation would be against the State of Minnesota, and the Gov. Mark Dayton administration has already hired a law firm for potential lawsuits.
In addition, the Legislature reportedly may be asked to approve millions of dollars this session for the state’s legal costs on the issue.
While PolyMet Mining has little control over the time needed for state and federal agencies to process and finalize permits, it is anticipated — given current progress — the company could be producing concentrates containing copper, nickel, cobalt and precious metals in late 2018, according to the company’s website.
Landwehr addressed the controversial nature of the project and concerns of opponents, but said, “I am quite comfortable that if done as planned there will not be significant impacts.”
But his boss, Gov. Mark Dayton, said he remains “genuinely undecided” on the final decision of whether the mine will ultimately be allowed.
That raised hopes of anti-PolyMet environmentalists, who did not have a good day on Thursday.
“We’re glad to see Gov. Dayton saying he’s going to take a hard look. We’re disappointed that the DNR did not address the issues it should have addressed,” said Aaron Klemz, spokesman for Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness.
The DNR decision was met by strong words of support by Iron Range political and business leaders.
Environmental groups were not pleased.
“I am pleased to see the Minnesota DNR deem the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) adequate. This is an important step for a project that will bring hundreds of good jobs to our region while sustaining the integrity of our rivers, lakes and land,” Nolan said.
“Today’s decision is a major win for the Iron Range. With hundreds of miners laid off due to the illegal dumping of millions of tons of foreign government subsidized steel into our marketplace, we need this project now more than ever,” said 8th District U.S. Rep, Rick Nolan.
“PolyMet has made it clear from the very beginning that they are absolutely committed to support and comply with every rule, regulation and financial guarantee the process requires to protect our water, air and land. Make no mistake — the monitoring and enforcement process will be vigorous.”
“The State of Minnesota should be proud today to recognize the promise of economic opportunity this project brings to our communities,” said Harry Melander, president of the Minnesota Building and Construction Trades Council.
“I’m thrilled to celebrate this milestone. The PolyMet project will usher in a new era of mining that will create millions of construction work hours in a region of our state that is hurting and in need of good paying jobs.”
“The EIS adequacy is true affirmation from top regulating authorities that PolyMet can be done safely, can be permitted and that the agencies will stand by their decision,” said Al Hodnik, ALLETE chairman, president and CEO, who is also a PolyMet Board member.
“A clean energy economy and society in general needs these minerals. It is red letter day and I am pleased for the many people who have supported this project and what it means for the Iron Range, Minnesota and our country.”
A statement by executive directors of the Laurentian, Hibbing and Grand Rapids chambers of commerce praised the determination of adequacy.
“A future of modern and responsible mining on the Range is something that we all look forward to as the next phase of opportunity for those of us who have built our lives here. PolyMet represents that future, and we remain hopeful that it will soon become reality,” said Bernie Collins of the Laurentian chamber, Lory Fedo of the Hibbing chamber and Bud Stone of the Grand Rapids chamber.
“Today validates our belief in the process and that we can have both jobs while also protecting the environment. We can do it the right way,” said Aurora City Councilor Dave Lislegard, who traveled to St. Paul Thursday for the DNR announcement.
“I’m very confident we will see shovels breaking ground to get this project up and running. This is a big step, albeit it took a while to get here,” said state Rep. Jason Metsa, DFL-Virginia.
Frank Ongaro, executive director of MiningMinnesota, an advocacy group for non-ferrous mining, praised the DNR’s decision.
“This is a good day for the working men and women or the Iron Range and in the state of Minnesota. It demonstrates that the system is working. It may not work quickly, but it is working.
“PolyMet has a sound project to meet Minnesota’s strict standards. It’s also important to the global investment community,” Ongaro said.
But a spokesman for an environmental group tried to refute what the exhaustive DNR process found.
“This project cannot be permitted. It violates state water quality standards. It violates the [federal] Clean Water Act,” said Paula Maccabee, an attorney for WaterLegacy, one of several group working together to fight the project.
How exhaustive was the DNR effort? The agency put in 90,000 hours of staff time on the 3,500-page document, which included 58,000 public comments on the Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement and 30,000 comments on the Final Environmental Impact Statement.
“The PolyMet decision of adequacy was great news. For those of us on the Range who have had to watch friends and neighbors get laid off and have to fight tooth and nail for their unemployment benefits — this is a very welcome moment. A breath of fresh air. Good news we’ve been waiting for,” said state Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm.
“I’m glad the DNR and the citizens of Minnesota have produced a thorough Environmental Impact Statements it means we can move forward with the permitting process knowing the state did its due diligence to vet this project.” State Rep. Tom Anzelc, DFL-Balsam Lake, said the permitting process has to be more streamlined.
“I give Gov. 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,” he said.
“I fully support the PolyMet project and applaud the DNR for reaching this conclusion today. The environmental review process on PolyMet has been the longest in state history. More than 90,000 hours of staff time has made this one of the most scrutinized mining projects in the country,”said Rep. Rob Ecklund, DFL-International Falls.