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PolyMet environmental review to be made public in November

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The long-awaited revised environmental review of the proposed PolyMet copper mining project will be made public Nov. 24, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources announced Friday.

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The 1,800-page Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement, a detailed plan for how the mine will operate in compliance with state and federal environmental regulations, was compiled by independent contractor EMR and has been years in the making.

The mining project has been substantially reworked since the original version in 2009 to meet concerns of regulatory agencies and others about the long-term implications of emissions, especially potentially acidic runoff when the copper-bearing rock is exposed to water and air.

The new version, originally expected to be made public this summer, also includes the environmental impacts of a proposed land exchange that will allow PolyMet to obtain U.S. Forest Service land where the mine will be located.

Steve Colvin, director of the ecological and water resources division, said the release is several months behind schedule because “of some really good comments that came in’’ from other agencies, such as tribal resource agencies and the Environmental Protection Agency.

“We decided to step back… and take another look,’’ Colvin said Friday.

Once it’s released, the public is expected to have 90 days to comment on the revised mining plan, including at three meetings, which the company has said are likely to be held in the Twin Cities, Duluth and Hoyt Lakes/Aurora. The DNR said those meeting are likely to be held in January. Exact times and locations will be announced later.

DNR officials would say only that the comment period would be “more than 45 days’’ which is the minimum required by law. Environmental groups have asked for 180 days to comment.

“We are taking a hard and objective look at this project,” DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr said in a statement. “Our top priority has always been to publish the best possible environmental review of a very complex project.”

After taking public comments, the DNR and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will rework the plan into a final EIS, after which the agencies will make a decision on whether the project can move forward — a so-called “adequacy decision.”

Once that occurs, the company can obtain permits to actually begin construction and mining.

PolyMet in May announced that the environmental review document had been completed and was in the hands of the regulatory agencies which have since been submitting comments, and said the entire package will be made public later this year when another round of meetings will be held and public comments will be accepted.

The company has said it hopes lead agencies will deem the revised environmental review adequate and publish a final EIS early in 2014, with permits to begin mining issued shortly thereafter and construction on the facility starting in the second half of 2014.

PolyMet is proposing Minnesota’s first copper-nickel mine, a $600 million open-pit mine near Babbitt and a processing center at the old LTV taconite mine north of Hoyt Lakes. The project would create about 350 jobs for more than 20 years, plus extensive spinoff business. PolyMet also would recover gold, platinum, palladium and other valuable metals.

Copper mining skeptics continue to have huge concerns over long-term water treatment, noting that documents filed earlier this year for the environmental review show treatment may be required at the PolyMet site for hundreds of years after the mine closes.

Opponents also question PolyMet’s estimates on how much money might be needed to close the mine and cover any environmental cleanup, as high as $200 million of so-called financial assurance. They say that may not be enough to cover long-term treatment of runoff from the mine to protect Northland lakes and rivers.

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