Both critics and proponents of the PolyMet mining proposal in northeastern Minnesota came out in full force Jan. 28 at a public forum held at the RiverCentre in St. Paul, Minn., despite subzero temperatures. The proposed projected, which is still in the environmental review stage, would consist of a mine near Babbitt, Minn., and processing plant near Hoyt Lakes, Minn.
The event drew more than 1,500 attendees, and provided a three hour public comment segment that drew nearly an equal number of endorsements and condemnations. Of the 640 individuals who signing up to speak, only 59 were able due to time constraints. The impact of the mine is largely debatable, but one thing that isn’t is the passion Minnesotans have for their state and its people.
Speaking in opposition
The core theme stressed by opponents of the proposal was the projection that 500 plus years of water treatment will be required at the plant site in the Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement.
“If you’re going to invest millions of dollars in cleaning up over the next 500 years, let’s invest millions of dollars in creating clean, renewable jobs. Jobs that last 500 years in the state of Minnesota,” said Minnesota resident Rob Davis.
Other issues concerning opponents are the displacement of 1,500 acres of wetlands within the project area, suppressed water quality, and potential increased greenhouse gases that would be released from the PolyMet facilities.
Quality over Quantity
A multitude of speakers in opposition were quick to point out the water model in the Environmental Impact Statement (SDEIS) is inherently flawed, as suggested in a Jan. 22 article written by the Timberjay’s Marshall Helmberger.
“At issue is the amount of water that flows through the area affected by the proposed mine, which sits near the headwaters of the Partridge River, a tributary of the St. Louis River. In determining the mine’s effects on water quality, the “base flow” rate for the river is a key variable, but it’s one for which agencies like the Department of Natural Resources do not have reliable data,” says the article. “The modeled flows used in the report, particularly during low flow periods in winter, appear to be much lower than actual data that the DNR has since gathered from the field.”
The DNR earlier this month reported the river's base flow was 0.5 cubic feet per second (CFS), three times lower than the 1.5 CFS reported in the SDEIS. However, DNR officials stated this week that a newer set of data shows base flow within the same range reported in the SDIES. The new data suggests base flow was in the 1.3 to 1.8 CFS spectrum.
"We don't see a discrepancy here," said Steve Colvin, DNR deputy director of the Ecological and Water Resources Division.
Mining proponent Josh Skelton, a chemical engineer, provided comments during the public forum that mirrored those made by the DNR.
“New research is showing up that would be closer to the 1.3 to 1.8,” he said. “Instead of distracting from the validity of the model with this update, more credence should be given to the sensitivity analysis done with the model. Simulations were run with flows lower than the baseline of 0.5 CFS, and as high as 2.4 CFS, and it still showed water quality standards will be met, and the new measured data was well within the range of analysis.”
Mining for our future
Skelton was also able to clear the air surrounding the belief that 500 years will be required for clean-up.
“The intent of the statement in modeling was not to predict the actual duration of water treatment, but rather to determine the impacts on water quality at key points of the watershed over stated periods of time in the model, 200 and 500 years, respectively,” said Skelton, who is licensed in Minnesota. “The outcome of the model actually is stating that water quality standards will be met well into the future, not defining the time frame for treatment.”
Other supporters of the mining endeavor largely argued that all of the agencies involved have complied with the requests/requirements of the EPA, and all of their finding are displayed in the 2,200 page SDEIS.
“We’ve been waiting a long time for the right time, the right technology, the right reasons and the right people to mine. We have the technology. We have the right rules and regulations in place. We have a need for these metals in our lives,” said David Olson, President of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. “Now is the time to mine them, here in Minnesota. We support the environmental review process this project has been involved in for seven years. It is thorough and it is complex for a project like this. But seven years is long enough.”
“Clean, safe, protective policy is what this document is about and provides. We asked our state and federal agencies to make sure that happened, and this document does just that,” said Harry Melander of Mahtomi, Minn., a Minnesota Building and Construction Trades Council representative. “We asked them, delivered it, and now lets move on. Mining in Minnesota has been a tradition for over a hundred years. Our members benefit from it, the region benefits from it, and every employment in this room depends upon it.”
Employment generated from the project would last for approximately 20 years, the proposed duration of the project. According to the SDIES, 360 jobs would be created. However, only about 90 of those would be local hires after mining experts are brought in from abroad.
Althought mining in Minnesota’s Iron Range has been conducted for over a century, the PolyMet project would be the first copper-nickel mine. With several other projects in the development stages, including Twin Metals Minnesota’s operation near Ely, Minn., the PolyMet decision is under a microscope at home, and abroad.