DNR announces publication date for draft NorthMet environmental review document

A detailed and thorough environmental analysis of the proposed NorthMet nonferrous mining project in northeastern Minnesota will be released to the public in late November, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) said Friday, Aug. 23.

The 1,800-page document, known as the Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement (SDEIS), will be available for public review on Nov. 22 when it is published in the Federal Register. It will then be published in the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board Monitor on Nov. 25.

Three co-lead agencies – the DNR, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Forest Service – have been preparing the SDEIS for the NorthMet project for 3½ years. The draft document examines the state’s first proposed copper, nickel and other precious metal mining operation. Operated by the PolyMet company, the mining project would be located near Hoyt Lakes, using the former LTV Steel Mining Company facility.

A supplement to a 2009 draft environmental impact statement, the SDEIS is a significant revision and addition to the original document. The SDEIS will provide the public with the most up-to-date information and environmental analysis of the project. The SDEIS is not a permit to mine, but a thorough description of the project and an analysis of any environmental impacts it is expected to have.

The SDEIS was scheduled for release in late summer of 2013, but the co-lead agencies opted to wait until November in order to thoroughly consider substantial comments it received this summer from other agencies and the company.

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

The release of the draft document will begin an important public review period involving public meetings, likely be held in January. The purpose of these public meetings will be to gather input on the adequacy of the SDEIS. More details about the public meetings will be announced in November.

The SDEIS describes the proposed project, identifies environmental impacts, and considers mitigation and alternatives that may lessen the environmental impacts. PolyMet’s project requires an SDEIS for three reasons: 1) to describe changes to the project proposal, 2) to analyze the proposed land exchange with the Superior National Forest, and 3) to provide additional information and analyses that were not included or done sufficiently in the draft EIS published in 2009.

During the past 12 months, the co-lead agencies with technical support from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and several cooperating agencies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and three Minnesota Chippewa bands, have been reviewing the SDEIS and making comments that will help shape the final document that will be released in November. The participating bands are the Grand Portage, Fond du Lac and Bois Forte.

The next steps after public review
After public review of the SDEIS — which by federal law must be at least 45 days – the co-lead agencies will review and respond to all comments, modify the draft document if needed, and ultimately publish a final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for public review. While a timeframe is still uncertain, for other complex environmental review projects, this analysis and revision has taken many months. The co-lead agencies then will determine if the final EIS adequately evaluates the project and its likely environmental impacts. If the EIS is determined adequate the project may proceed to permit considerations and other approvals, which will specify conditions that must be met to protect the environment.

The SDEIS is a tool to inform the public of the project’s environmental impact and mitigation plans. It also informs the mine permitting process. Final regulatory decisions cannot be made until after environmental review is completed.

At this point, no regulatory decisions have been made on the NorthMet project. During the permitting phase, there will be additional opportunities for public review and input on specific permits and details. Ultimately, PolyMet will be able to proceed with construction and operations only if all necessary permits are received.