MINNEAPOLIS A plan for Minnesota’s first copper-nickel mine passed a major milestone Thursday with the Department of Natural Resources approving the project’s final environmental review, meaning the company can now start pursuing the long list of permits it needs to move forward.
DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr said he determined that the 3,500-page environmental impact statement for the proposed PolyMet mine in northeastern Minnesota meets all the legal requirements. If the project is built as described, he said, “we will meet standards ... intended to protect public health and the environment.”
The approval lets PolyMet Mining Corp. begin applying for the more than 20 permits it needs to build the mine near Babbitt and processing operations six miles away near Hoyt Lakes, at the site of the former LTV Steel taconite plant that has been closed since 2001.
“That’s where the real environmental review, as far as I’m concerned, is going to take place,” Gov. Mark Dayton said of the permitting process.
Landwehr declined to speculate on how long securing those permits might take or when construction could begin, but said PolyMet must have several permits in hand “before they can put a shovel in the ground.”
PolyMet and its backers have promoted the project as a boon to the economically depressed Iron Range. More than 2,000 workers have been laid off from Minnesota’s iron mining companies in the past year, while the governor’s office estimates that more than 3,000 other people have lost jobs at companies that serve the industry.
But environmental groups consider PolyMet a threat to nearby pristine areas and water supplies. They’re expected to maintain their fight throughout the permitting process and possibly in the courts. PolyMet’s experience is expected to set the pattern for approval of future copper-nickel-precious-metal mines in northeastern Minnesota, including the proposed Twin Metals mine near Ely, which would be close to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.
Dayton said he remains “genuinely undecided” on the final decision of whether the mine will ultimately be allowed.
PolyMet began its initial environmental work in 2004. But the original impact statement, released in 2009, drew a poor review from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The project was then extensively redesigned to address water quality, waste rock disposal and other concerns. The DNR issued a major revision in 2013 and conducted a public comment process that shaped the final version, which was released in November.
The company says the project will directly generate up to 500 temporary construction jobs and about 360 permanent jobs that will pay about $36 million in annual wages and benefits, as well as support hundreds of jobs indirectly. While PolyMet has said it hopes to start mining in late 2018, the company acknowledges it has little control over the permitting timetable.
Environmentalists point out that the area’s extensive and untapped copper-nickel reserves are locked in sulfide-bearing minerals that can leach sulfuric acid and metals when exposed to the elements. A battleground during the permitting process will be whether PolyMet can provide adequate bankruptcy-proof assurances to cover the costs of cleaning up the mine once it shuts down after its projected 20-year life. The environmental review concluded that wastewater from the mine and plant sites will require treatment indefinitely.
Landwehr said taxpayers will not be on the hook for those costs.
Two federal agencies still must sign off on pieces of the environmental review process but neither is expected to pose a major hurdle.
The U.S. Forest Service still has to give final approval to an exchange of 6,650 acres of federal land in the Superior National Forest that PolyMet needs for roughly the same amount of privately owned land within the forest. The Army Corps of Engineers must also grant approval because the project would result in the loss of over 900 acres of wetlands, so compensation would be required. The Forest Service is expected to decide this spring, Landwehr said, while the Army Corps of Engineers will take longer because it needs information that will be developed during the permitting process.