Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


How the DNR is handling its deluge of 52,000 public comments on PolyMet

That was just one insight among many I gained from a talk with DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr about the sheer logistical challenge.

The DNR received about 52,000 comments on the PolyMet EIS, about 5,000 of them unique.

As the tally of public comments on PolyMet Mining Corp.‘s proposed NorthMet project climbed past 30,000, then 40,000 and finally 50,000 by the March 13 deadline, some of us at MinnPost wondered:  

How in the world does the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources physically process such a flood of information?

Everybody who uses email can appreciate in some sense how electronic communication has multiplied the challenge of merely tracking inbound correspondence, let alone reading, sorting and responding to it.

But most of us do so without legal obligation to (a) record every email received and (b) answer, in some way, each one that can be considered in some way “unique” —  a classification for which the threshold is rather low.

DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr

If 100 or 1,000 people send in the same prepared comment form, adding only their name, a single response will serve for the whole identical set, DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr explained to me on Tuesday.

Article continues after advertisement

“But even the auto-generated emails allow for customization,” he said. “So if you put in, ‘I don’t like the way the commissioner combs his hair,’ now you’ve got two comments, and it becomes unique.”

That was just one insight among many I gained from a talk with Landwehr in which we laid aside the policy disputes and controversy surrounding the PolyMet project — and review of it by the DNR and its “co-lead agencies,” the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — to discuss the sheer logistical challenge of handling the public’s assessment  of the NorthMet Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement (SDEIS).

Excerpts from Landwehr’s comments:

We have DNR staff who do this kind of work day in and day out, and they have developed a process for it; also, I should acknowledge we’re working with a consultant, ERM, and they do EIS work all over the place.

They have system for taking comments and dissecting them and figuring out how to prepare them for responses, and that’s at the company’s expense: ERM bills us, and we bill PolyMet.

 Our first contract with ERM went through the public review of the 2009 draft EIS and sometime after as we worked through the comments, and was for approximately $5.8 million.

Our second contract with ERM began in April 2011, well after the public comment period on the 2009 draft EIS, and the current amount is approximately $10.7 million. That does not include development of the final EIS; we are currently negotiating a contract amendment for that phase.

52,000 comments, 5,000 unique

I don’t have a precise number for the comments received but I have a very close number: 52,000, which is enormous.

My understanding is we have in the neighborhood of 5,000 unique comments. And the law requires that every unique comment must have a response in the final document.

Article continues after advertisement

So it’s a monster to get your arms around, and we really have no idea how long it will take. I think the 2009 EIS took nine months, and that was 10,000 comments.

The bad news about the computer age is that you can generate a lot of stuff without much thought. But the good news is, you can sort through much of it without a lot of thought.

One big database

The beginning of the funnel, if you will, is an electronic database at ERM. All 52,000 go in there, and the software behind the database can identify exact matches so they can be treated in bulk.

ERM staff read each of the comments and sort them. In the first sort, the comments are broken down into major topical areas — there will be some about water quality, and they’ll go into a water-quality box; some about land exchange, they’ll go into a land-exchange box.

Then, within a topic area, there might be several themes, they call them. So someone submits a comment about water quality, and they talk about sulfates, they talk about mercury, they’ll talk about something else. Now we have three boxes: water quality/sulfates, water quality/mercury, water quality/something else.  

And the process just continues to bifurcate until it comes down to one specific theme in one specific area. But we’ll have a bunch around, say, sulfates and water quality, that share a very common root question, which can be addressed in one common answer.

Identifying how that answer will occur is called a disposition. It could be a reply that the answer is found elsewhere in the EIS; it could be a reply that, yes, there’s a correction we have to make; or it could be a disposition that says additional work is needed.

Initial sort takes months

That’s the process that’s going on right now, a kind of mechanical process of handling the questions that has to occur before we can dive into the answering of the questions. It will take a couple of more months, at least.

Remember, some of those 52,000 have multiple questions within them; we got one letter of 180 pages, I think from the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. And I know that’s not the only large one we got.

So we have no idea at this point how many dispositions there will be. Once we do, we’ll develop a scoping schedule, and start assigning how much time is going to be needed for each disposition. Might be five minutes, might be five months.

Article continues after advertisement

Comments made at the public meetings are included in the 52,000; we had court reporters transcribing what people said from the microphones, and we also had court reporters there taking oral comments from people whose names weren’t drawn to speak. We also had paper cards for people to fill out.

It’s fair to say the live music at the St. Paul session was perhaps one of the most unique forms the comments have taken. It wouldn’t surprise me if we’ve received some others in unique media, and they’ll be incorporated, too. Sometimes the only response possible is, we received that — because it’s more of a statement on mining than a comment on the EIS. But it will be noted.

Dividing the work

To the extent that a disposition requires technical involvement, it will be assigned to one of the co-lead agencies, or in some cases we can rely on expertise at ERM.

Say something comes in on land exchange. Only the Forest Service can respond to that. If something comes in on wetland mitigation, the provisions under the 404 rules, the Corps of Engineers will respond to that.

But in many cases, I think the questions will be answered by teams of experts from more than one agency. Say there was a complicated water-quality issue; it might involve both the Corps of Engineers and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency [PCA], or DNR and the PCA.

I’m told that development of the SDEIS included in the vicinity of 50 to 60 different people who were tapped for different levels of expertise from DNR, PCA and the federal agencies. I imagine this would require a similar pool.  

Part of the public comment process is to point out to us true deficiencies in the report — questions that we didn’t ask and should have asked, or deficiencies in the analysis that require us to re-analyze. I’m not aware as yet that there was any big stuff that was missed, but I’m not really into the weeds on all of it, either.

What he’s learned so far

This is the first EIS I’ve been involved with as a commissioner, and there are a few things that I’ve learned.

One is, it’s important that people understand what the EIS process is, and I’m not sure that people are always clear on that. It’s information-gathering, which I liken to buying a house: You get a lot of information about the neighborhood, the house and its composition before you go and buy it.

Article continues after advertisement

Second was about really making sure that people understand what their opportunity is: We really need your critical comments, for you to weigh in, in a really rich and meaningful way.  

And third was, we really did want 52,000 comments. We really did want for everybody in Minnesota who has any interest at all to be aware of this process, and have available to them all the information they might want, and every opportunity to comment.

We wanted to make sure this was the most rigorous public review we could get, and I think 52,000 is a pretty good measure of success.