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Even with known deficiencies, the PolyMet FEIS is pushed forward

The FEIS is lacking in pertinent analysis of significant impacts that will change the quality and character of Minnesota’s north woods area — for us and the next 25 generations.

The PolyMet-NorthMet FEIS contains more than 3,500 pages.

When the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) released the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) for the state of Minnesota’s first ever sulfide mine, it gave citizens 30 days in which to respond. The PolyMet-NorthMet FEIS contains more than 3,500 pages — reportedly the largest EIS for a single project in the history of the state. While the DNR has granted 90-day comment periods for previous PolyMet documents, it is giving citizens a third of that time to respond to a greater volume of material, at the most critical juncture in the environmental process. 

The FEIS can be accessed by hard copy, which consists of four binders mailed to those who had previously requested such. It can be also be viewed at certain libraries and found online, although thousands of pages of reference material are not posted and have not been made available to the general public. The agency websites have experienced difficulties and lapses, resulting in lost time for online users. No public informational meetings are being held.

To complicate the process further, citizens must submit substantive comments separately to three different agencies: the DNR on the adequacy of the FEIS, the Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE) on wetland losses, and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) on the exchange of federal lands to PolyMet. The DNR has extended the PolyMet FEIS comment period; comments are now due by 4:30 p.m. on Dec. 21. The ACOE comment period ends on Dec. 14, but the USFS has an overlapping comment/objection period that will end on Jan. 4. The comment periods extend over the Thanksgiving-Christmas-New Year’s holiday season, a time when many citizens are involved with family or travel. 

While citizens and environmental groups struggle to meet the deadlines, Minnesota Management and Budget Commissioner Myron Frans finalized an agreement with the Washington, D.C.,-based Crowell and Moring law firm to handle lawsuits over PolyMet. Last year the Minnesota Legislature appropriated $750,000 of taxpayer money for such purposes. Eventual costs could top $1 million (“Minnesota Braces for Legal Fight over PolyMet Mine Decisions”). See also “Minnesota’s choice of mining law firm in PolyMet case draws protest.” 

The fact that the state has hired a law firm that specializes in representing mining companies, even before the public comment period has closed, makes one wonder whether the decision to approve PolyMet may have already been made. This would circumvent the public participation and environmental review process required under state and federal laws. Also of note: In 2004, Crowell and Moring represented a foreign mining company to undermine California and U.S. law in a NAFTA case (Glamis Gold Ltd v. United States of America) [PDF]. Is the Minnesota government so desperate to promote mining that it would be willing to undermine its own citizens?

Known deficiencies

The agencies involved are pushing the PolyMet FEIS forward, even with known deficiencies. One of the largest of them is the lack of cumulative analysis that would take into account the impacts of opening a sulfide-mining district in the heart of Superior National Forest, and in the headwaters of both the Lake Superior and Rainy River watersheds. Both Teck (formerly Teck Cominco) and Twin Metals have claimed deposits adjoining those of PolyMet, and could foreseeably use PolyMet’s excess mining capacity. The pollution potentials of a sulfide mine district, exuding acid mine drainage (AMD) and toxic heavy metals into two watersheds, could replace a wilderness environment with an industrial mining zone.

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Cumulative health risks to downstream communities, including Duluth, Superior and Fond du Lac, are also excluded in the FEIS. These include contaminated drinking water, mercury in fish, and release of asbestos-like particles. Issues concerning loss of fish and wild rice as local food are also not addressed.

Discrepancies in groundwater modeling

When reviewing PolyMet’s documents, the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC) found major discrepancies in groundwater modeling. GLIFWC used the same modeling program as that used by Barr Engineering for PolyMet. But GLIFWC found that, upon closure, water from PolyMet would flow north into the Rainy River watershed. This is a conclusion that PolyMet has consistently denied, as the mining company finds it politically correct to pollute the Lake Superior watershed, but not the Rainy River, which flows into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. As reported in the Timberjay (“Tribes: FEIS water model still flawed,” Dec. 2), “DNR officials … revised model runs using the water level inputs suggested by GLIFWC, and the results confirmed GLIFWC’s conclusions that groundwater from NorthMet’s east pit would flow to the north.” But rather than conduct an independent review, the DNR proposes to meet any such problems as they arise, using the catch phrase “adaptive management.” The DNR chooses such adaptive management techniques throughout the FEIS, since it is impossible to anticipate the amount of pollution or the efficacy of run-off containment on the grandiose scale of such mining.

The DNR also glosses over modeling that shows the proposed plant site would need to be treated for pollutants for at least 500 years. If the DNR were to follow Minnesota state law — Chapter 6132.3200 Closure and Postclosure Maintenance: “the mining area shall be closed so that it … is maintenance free” — PolyMet would not be permitted.

Tailings basin stability is also marginalized in the FEIS. Collapse of the tailings basin at British Columbia’s Mount Polley gold and copper mine in August of 2014 is the largest mining waste spill in Canada’s history. While analyzing the disaster, engineers made the case for the use of dry stacking of tailings, rather than wet basins. Because of high costs, PolyMet refuses to consider this alternative, and the DNR concurs. For more information on the Mount Polley disaster, see Gary Kohl’s “An Open Letter to Governor Dayton, the Minnesota EPA, the DNR and Every Thinking Minnesota Citizen.”

The November 2015 tailings basin disaster at the Samarco iron ore mine in Brazil resulted in the loss of life, homes, and livelihood. The Brazilian government is now suing the two major mining companies for $5 billion in damages. PolyMet’s FEIS does not address financial assurance issues that would apply to unpredictable mine spills or post-closure pollution. Instead, the FEIS is being pushed out before incorporating any analysis from the most recent and costly mine disasters.

Since the opening of a sulfide mine district in the Arrowhead Region of the state is highly controversial, politicians would like to see the issue resolved before next fall’s major elections. Since the commissioner of the DNR is appointed by the governor, the process is not one simply of scientific analysis. And since the DNR Lands and Minerals Division actively promotes mining activity, the FEIS is not a neutral process.

What citizens can do

The PolyMet FEIS is lacking in pertinent analysis of significant impacts that will change the quality and character of Minnesota’s north woods area — for us and the next 25 generations. These are not matters to be taken lightly. The poisoning of our waters is simply not acceptable.

Voice your opposition and objection to this flawed project and review process. Check out www.sosbluewaters.org for more information.

Call the governor at (651-201-3400 or 800-657-3717) and submit an email on his website form.

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Comment to: 

DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr 
Forest Service Reviewing Officer – Attn: Kathleen Atkinson
Army Corps of Engineers – Tamara Cameron
Region 5 EPA Administrator – Dr. Susan Hedman

Elanne Palcich, a retired elementary school teacher, lives in Chisholm, Minn.

WANT TO ADD YOUR VOICE?

If you’re interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, email Susan Albright at salbright@minnpost.com.)