Final EIS for PolyMet’s proposed copper-nickel mine released

Public invited to provide comments by Dec. 14

State and federal agencies have released a final, comprehensive environmental analysis of Minnesota’s first proposed copper-nickel mine. A 30-day public review period begins next week.

Release of the final environmental impact statement (FEIS) is an important development in the review process for PolyMet Mining, Inc.’s proposed NorthMet project in northeastern Minnesota near Hoyt Lakes. Local, state, and federal agencies will decide whether to issue the necessary permits and other project approvals only after completion of the environmental review process.

PolyMet proposes to develop an open-pit mine and processing facilities for the extraction of copper, nickel and platinum elements, with an estimated 20-year lifespan for mine operations.

“The co-lead agencies have brought the highest level of rigor and objectivity to the NorthMet environmental review,” said Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr. “Our responsibility is to conduct a neutral evaluation based on information from the company, our own analysis, and the comments we receive. The process has been thoughtful, independent and thorough.”

The 3,000 page document – prepared collaboratively by the DNR, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), known collectively as the co-lead agencies – includes responses to the approximately 58,000 public comment submissions made in response to the 2013 supplemental draft environmental impact statement, as well as responses to comments made on the 2009 draft environmental impact statement. The three agencies carefully considered all comments, which resulted in important changes to the final document.

There has been a high level of public interest and a broad range of public comments were submitted on the supplemental draft environmental impact statement. “Together with our federal co-lead agencies, we have carefully considered those comments,” Landwehr said. “In many instances, comments prompted us to review and reconfirm our approach. In other instances, they led us to make modifications. We encourage the public to comment on the adequacy of the FEIS during the upcoming 30-day public review period.”

Public invited to submit comments starting next week
The public will be able to submit comments to the DNR on whether the final environmental impact statement is adequate. A 30-day public review period begins Nov. 13 and ends Dec. 14. The DNR will consider all comments received during that period in making its adequacy determination.

Public comments can be submitted electronically at NorthMetFEIS.dnr@state.mn.us or by mail to:

Lisa Fay, EIS project manager
Minnesota DNR Ecological and Water Resources Division
Environmental Review Unit
500 Lafayette Road, Box 25
St. Paul, MN 55155-4025

The final environmental impact statement will be published on Nov. 9 in the state’s Environmental Quality Board Monitor and Nov. 13 in the Federal Register. The document is now available on the DNR’s website. The website also includes an executive summary, and a series of fact sheets designed to help the public understand the proposed project and access information in the full FEIS.

Public review copies of the FEIS are also available at the following locations:

  • DNR/MPCA Library, 500 Lafayette Road, St. Paul.
  • DNR regional office, 1201 East Highway 2, Grand Rapids.
  • DNR Lands and Minerals Division regional office, 1525 Third Ave. E., Hibbing.
  • Hoyt Lakes Public Library, 206 Kennedy Memorial Drive, Hoyt Lakes.
  • Babbitt Public Library, 71 South Drive, Babbitt.
  • Duluth Public Library, 520 West Superior St., Duluth.
  • Minneapolis Public Library, 300 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis.

All written comments become a part of the final EIS record and are public information. Written comments will be accepted until 4:30 p.m. on Dec. 14.

What the final environmental impact statement includes
The final environmental impact statement is an intensive, scientific examination of environmental, social and economic aspects of the proposed project. This includes in-depth analyses of potential impacts on wetlands, air and water quality, wildlife, and cultural resources. The document describes proposals to reduce impacts through project modifications, mitigation and alternative actions, and also includes the agencies’ responses to public comments.

The FEIS does not make any permitting decisions regarding approval or denial of the proposed project. Information in the environmental review document will be used by regulatory agencies, including the DNR, USFS, USACE and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), to help inform future permitting decisions and other required approvals if the proposed project moves forward.

The FEIS also examines how PolyMet would address mine-site reclamation and provides preliminary information on the financial assurances needed during and after mine operation. The document thoroughly analyzes the proposed land exchange between the company and the USFS that would be needed for PolyMet to implement its mining proposal.

Changes since the supplemental draft environmental impact statement
Comments from the public and cooperating agencies on the earlier draft, called the supplemental draft environmental impact statement, resulted in important changes to the final document.

Cooperating agencies that submitted comments were the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, Grand Portage Band of Chippewa, and Bois Forte Band of Chippewa. The MPCA also provided input in the agency’s areas of expertise.

As a result of public and agency comments, changes to the FEIS included:

  • Additional information on potential impacts to moose, other plants and animals, and biodiversity sites.
  • A new section that consolidates information about potential human health impacts of the proposed project.
  • Revisions to the design of the tailings basin water containment system, which holds leftover materials from mineral processing.
  • Additional analysis of water flow to ensure that the agencies’ modeling accurately describes likely water quality impacts.
  • A monitoring and mitigation plan to prevent the potential northward flow of groundwater through bedrock at the mine site.

Next steps
The DNR’s final action on the FEIS will be its adequacy decision, anticipated in early 2016. Under state law, the adequacy determination must be based on three criteria:

  • Does the FEIS analyze the topics identified in scoping?
  • Does the FEIS respond to comments received on the draft?
  • Did the DNR follow the process established in state statute and rule for preparing an environmental impact statement?

Therefore, comments that specifically address these criteria will be the most helpful in informing the DNR’s adequacy decision.

If the DNR determines the final environmental impact statement is adequate, the environmental review process is complete for the state. The proposed project would then move forward to the permitting process. The project would still need to receive more than 20 local, state and federal approvals and permits.

The permitting process evaluates if the project can comply with all applicable environmental regulations and would set out the required measures needed to avoid, minimize or mitigate environmental impacts. The permit to mine process would also ensure that the company could provide the financial assurances necessary to ensure essential environmental protections once the mine site is no longer in operation. The permitting phase also involves opportunities for public review of draft permits.  The specifics of the public engagement opportunities vary by permit.

While the state’s FEIS adequacy determination and permit decisions are distinct processes, the federal process for the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is somewhat different. The next step in the USFS environmental review process is to publish a draft Record of Decision (ROD) regarding the land exchange. The USFS anticipates publishing a draft ROD on Nov. 17 with a legal notice initiating a 45-day “objection” period. The USFS’s final ROD can only be signed after responding to all objections and instructions from the “reviewing official.” The USACE’s ROD will inform its decision on whether to permit the discharge of dredged or fill material into waters of the U.S., including wetlands.

About the NorthMet mine proposal
The proposed NorthMet mine project would be located in the St. Louis River watershed on the eastern edge of the Mesabi Iron Range, about 6 miles south of Babbitt and about 1 mile south of the existing iron-ore Northshore Mine. Processing of the ore would take place at a former industrial site, the LTV steel plant in Hoyt Lakes.

The total project area would include the open pit mine, a processing plant, tailings basin and an existing 7-mile-long railroad corridor for ore transport between the mine and the processing plant. The proposed land exchange involves 6,650 acres of federal land at the proposed mine site and 6,722 acres of non-federal land located in Lake and St. Louis counties.