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PolyMet near finish line in long review process
Could 2014 finally be the year? After an exhaustive review period that began eight years ago, PolyMet’s long-awaited Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement (SDEIS) is scheduled to be released on Dec. 6.
Its public unveiling will trigger a 90- day public comment period beginning Dec. 9. Following that is a response period from lead regulators. Then, if a determination of adequacy is made, permits to mine could begin to be issued
– perhaps as early as the second half of next year.
The conclusion of the environmental review is unlikely, however, to end the
Despite the lengthy process, which included a 2010 intervention from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, no one expects that nonferrous mining will be permitted without objection.
In Northeastern Minnesota, where iron mining has been a cornerstone of the region’s economy for a century, expanding mining into copper, nickel and other precious metals remains somewhat controversial.
The key sticking point? It’s sulfides and acid mine drainage, which was often associated with copper mining sites where operations ceased decades ago.
Nonferrous mining minerals are bound to sulfides, which are unearthed in the nonferrous mining process. When mixed with water and air, sulfides can produce sulfuric acid – a particularly potent pollutant. Opponents, in fact, have taken to calling nonferrous mining “sulfide mining” in an effort to emphasize the danger.
While there are certainly environmentally conscious objectors, Rep. Tom Anzelc, DFL – Balsam, said that it’s eight for eight in favor when one counts votes among the Iron Range delegation of legislators on the nonferrous mining issue. Other politicians, including U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, representing Minnesota’s Eighth Congressional District, also have voiced support for PolyMet.
“I’m confident we’ll see the first permits issued in 2014,” said Anzelc, chair
of the delegation.
Anzelc added that “by and large, it feels like about three-to-one (constituent) support for permitting this mine.” Technological advances, with the potential to mitigate negative impacts, are cited by some as a reason to move forward. Couple that with economics and it isn’t hard to see why the project has plenty of
local and business support.
A Nov. 2012 study on the impact of ferrous and nonferrous mining conducted by UMD’s Labovitz School estimated a potential total economic impact (direct
and indirect) of nearly $320 million and almost 1,900 jobs on the nonferrous side.
That potential in the vast Duluth Complex, often billed as the world’s largest untapped minerals reserve, has drawn approximately one dozen companies to the state for exploration or development proposals, noted Frank Ongaro, executive director Mining Minnesota, an association that favors nonferrous mining developments. PolyMet is furthest along in the process. Twin Metals Minnesota, another well-known nonferrous company with a regionl presence, is in the prefeasibility stage.
At a Grand Rapids Area Library event last month, Ongaro told an audience at a panel discussion that technology had made it possible to mine precious metals in an environmentally responsible way. The example of success most often referenced is Wisconsin’s Flambeau Mine near Ladysmith. Owner and operator Kennecott Minerals was issued a certificate of completion for its reclamation efforts in 2007. The mine operated from 1993 to 1997.
He further noted the positive economic impact iron mining has had in Minnesota.
“It’s no myth that this is major when it comes to jobs and jobs potential,” said
Ongaro. “Thirty percent of the region’s GDP is mining.”
PolyMet plans a two-phased project – both of which are addressed in the soonto- be-released SDEIS.
The first phase will utilize infrastructure from the former LTV site near Hoyt Lakes to crush and process copper and nickel concentrates that would then be
shipped by rail elsewhere for further refinement, Bruce Richardson, Polymet’s vice president of corporate communications and external affairs, told BusinessNorth in November.
Phase two involves the construction of new facilities to further refine nickel concentrates utilizing hydrometallurgical processes.
The $600 million proposed project holds the prospect of about 350 direct jobs and hundreds of spin off jobs.
Executives, economic developers and local politicians hope that PolyMet’s potential is realized sooner rather than later.
The company anticipates a determination of the adequacy of the EIS sometime in the late third or early fourth quarter of next year.
“In early 2015, we’d start construction – if all goes well,” Richardson said.
The PolyMet executive said his company is glad the process has finally come to this point – a point where simply showing up with hundreds of supporters or opponents in T-shirts won’t hold sway the decision in and of itself.
“The (review) process can finally work,” he said. “It’s all in that 1,800- to 2,000-word document.”
But the Grand Rapids event last month clearly showed that environmentalists aren’t likely to stand down – no matter what the outcome of the EIS process.
Last month, Kathryn Hoffman, an attorney with the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, said her organization has “grave concerns” about the ability of any company to safely engage in nonferrous mining.
Anzelc expects litigation of some sort will follow environmental review and the determination of adequacy– although what that might look like remains unclear.
There’s one remaining question:
“Can construction begin or will it not begin pending whatever kind of litigation might materialize?” Anzelc wondered.
The answer to that question will become known as the discussion unravels.Previous BusinessNorth Exclusives Articles:
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