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Polymet 101 or The essentials of Copper Sulfide Mining Revisited-A Summary Todate

Published in the Zenith City Weekly, Vol. 8 Issue 114 on Feb. 11, 2014 by Anne Stewart
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Compare the Polymet 101 Summary with what we knew in 2008 VCC Panel Discusion

Anne Stewart
Zenith City Weekly

After PolyMet released its latest plans on December 6, an estimated 3,650 people attended public hearings in Duluth, St. Paul, and Aurora, to comment on the 2,200–page Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement (SDEIS).

The Canadian–owned company produced the SDEIS with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the US Army Corps of Engineers, and the US Forest Service, after the Environmental Protection Agency rejected the first plan in 2010 for unsatisfactory water quality, wetlands impact, and failure to address clean–up costs once the mine closes.

The company is seeking permits to build a mine with three open pits, the deepest reaching 696 feet, on 16,700 acres at the former LTV site near Hoyt Lakes. The project includes refurbishing LTV’s processing plant and building a “hydrometallurgical facility” for extracting nickel, cobalt, and other precious metals.

PolyMet would process 73,068 tons of rock per day—225 million tons of ore and 308 million tons of waste rock over the life of the project. “Tailings,” a slurry of fine–particle waste suspended in water, would be deposited on top of LTV’s old tailings basin.

A coalition of the Bois Forte, Grand Portage, and Fond du Lac Chippewa Bands, the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, and the 1854 Treaty Authority was invited to be a cooperating agency in the preparation of the SDEIS.

In their response, included as Appendix C, the Bands address 18 areas of concern and reiterate their rights under the 1854 Treaty of La Pointe to access ceded land for hunting, fishing, and ricing.

The Bands questioned predictive models for the amount of pollutants to be released, because the models were based on data from other sites, not on current water data from the project site and surrounding area.

The interaction of water flow between the mine and wetlands was also a concern. The company commissioned an aboveground survey, but didn’t study the type of rock or structure beneath the wetlands.

In the SDEIS, the Canisteo pit on the Mesabi Range is used as an “analogous model,” but the Bands pointed out that PolyMet’s pits would be twice as deep. “Thus the effect on surrounding aquifer would be greater” because the pits will reach twice as far into the bedrock, increasing the potential for groundwater pollution.

Then a DNR internal memo surfaced, dated December 13, suggesting the DNR knew all along that the modeling data were inaccurate and many of the mine’s water quality projections are tied to this data.

“This validates tribal science. Their concerns deserve a second look,” says Paula Maccabee, an environmental lawyer who first obtained the DNR memo and has been one of PolyMet’s most vocal critics. “What’s going to win here, science or politics?”

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s (MPCA) impaired waters list includes streams within the PolyMet drainage area and identifies mercury in fish as the problem. In 2009, this became the subject of a “TMDL,” or “Total Maximum Daily Load,” which involves studying an impaired body of water, setting goals to remediate it, and then setting the maximum contaminants allowable to meet the goal.

The Fond du Lac Band, one of the TMDL participants, has accused the MPCA of effectively withdrawing from the study and “grinding it to a halt.” The MPCA maintains that the TMDL is “on hold,” because “modeling used was not sufficient to give the right answer” as to which contaminants are contributing to the high levels of mercury in fish tissue. Regarding the TMDL, the SDEIS says further study needs to be completed before “consideration can be given to permit conditions for individual projects.”

PolyMet’s potential contaminants include arsenic, manganese, sulfate, and heavy metals, such as lead. Contamination could continue for as long as 200 years at the mine site and 500 years at the plant site.

During operations, mine pit water will be treated with chemical precipitation, which involves introducing a chemical specific to each contaminant that causes it to drop out of the solution, or “precipitate.” The water will then be piped to the tailings basin, which will serve as a source of water for production along with water drawn from Colby Lake.

Process water will be recirculated and finally go through reverse osmosis, which uses a combination of electricity and a semi–permeable membrane to filter the water before it is discharged into nearby creeks.

The waste from water treatment will be hauled offsite to a landfill. Hydrometallurgical residue will be deposited on–site. When the mine closes, the residue will be covered with tailings, soil, and “if necessary” with a clay barrier and polyethylene liner. The words “if necessary” appear often in the SDEIS.

The tailings basin and pit lake will have a containment system of dikes, dams, ditches, pumps, and pipes to collect water and return it to the tailings basin, one side of which is in bedrock that PolyMet maintains will not fracture because of the rock type.

Twenty years after closure, the west pit is predicted to overflow. Overflow water will be redirected back into the west pit and—”if necessary”—the mine site’s wastewater treatment facility would be upgraded to a reverse osmosis system.

Another form of on–site water treatment will be constructed wetlands, which remove heavy metals, but require monitoring indefinitely. Who will perform this monitoring is not addressed in the SDEIS.

Jennifer Saran, Director of Environmental Permitting and Compliance for PolyMet, says they can contract with a company that specializes in long–term monitoring. Details will be included in the reclamation plan submitted for closure.

Funding for long–term maintenance will be addressed in the “financial assurances”—PolyMet’s plan to pay for ongoing expenses after closure—but this, too, may not be addressed until closure nears.

According to the SDEIS, water treatment will continue “as long as…monitoring shows treatment is required.” Saran says the company hopes to transfer to a “passive, non–mechanical” system, in which mine site water will be directed by gravity to a permanent filtering system and then into the Partridge River.

Costs for closure and maintenance are $320 million for the first 20 years and $3.5 to $6 million per year for the next two to five centuries, equaling several billion dollars. Even if costs decrease and there is no inflation, PolyMet is making a long–term promise.

Glencore, a Swiss commodities company with a controlling stock interest in PolyMet, is the major financer of the mining company, which has no current income. If PolyMet goes out of business, it’s unclear whether Glencore would have any legal responsibility for long–term pollution control costs.

According to Paula Maccabee, “It’s an open question whether Glencore’s strategic partnership would be enough to create legal responsibility.”

While it makes sense to build a new mine at the site of a defunct one, PolyMet’s tailings will be deposited on top of the old LTV tailings basin, which has been leaking for years. In 2010, the site owner, Cliffs Erie, was ordered to collect and discharge the water.

PolyMet would incorporate the current discharge into its own containment and treatment system. Once Cliffs Erie’s discharge permits are transferred to PolyMet, PolyMet becomes responsible for the site.

However, PolyMet doesn’t yet own the land it wants to mine. PolyMet owns the underlying mineral leases, but the US Forest Service owns the surface rights. A land exchange between PolyMet and the Forest Service is crucial for the project to become a reality.

Some of the land PolyMet plans to exchange was purchased by PolyMet with mortgages from the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board, an agency created by the legislature to diversify the Iron Range economy and make it less dependent on mining.

The primary purpose of this land exchange, rather than a direct sale, is explicitly to sidestep the Weeks Act, which was enacted in 1911 to preserve waterways and prohibits the use or sale of land purchased under the Act for surface mining.

The land exchange trades 6,650 acres of Forest Service land for 6,722.5 acres from PolyMet. The largest parcel the Forest Service would receive is 4615.5 acres at Hay Lake near Biwabic. The rest are smaller tracts in the Superior National Forest.

The SDEIS describes these parcels as having low potential for minerals, although one of the tracts in Lake County is “subject to mineral reservation that includes the right to sink, cave, disturb or remove surface material.” All but one parcel has the mineral rights severed from the surface rights.

The land PolyMet would receive in exchange encompasses 53 percent of the “One Hundred Mile Swamp,” approximately 3,028 acres rated by the DNR as high in biodiversity.

When asked if the Weeks Act prohibition on mining will transfer to the acquired properties, Liz Schleif of the US Forest Service said yes, but titles still needed to be examined. Like much of the SDEIS, final details have not yet been determined.

In 2012, the Labovitz School of Business and Economics at the University of Minnesota Duluth conducted a study of “The Economic Impact of Ferrous and Non–Ferrous Mining on the State of Minnesota and the Arrowhead Region, including Douglas County, Wisconsin.”

Funded in large part by the mining industry, the results showed entirely positive economic outcomes from 20 years of mining jobs and associated economic activity. The study did not address potential effects on logging, recreation, tourism, or independent manufacturers and businesses.

It’s even possible that PolyMet will continue operations beyond the 20 years posited in the SDEIS. Future proposals now in the planning stages, such as Twin Metals and Tech Cominco, could eventually take over PolyMet’s processing plant, or PolyMet might identify and mine other locations itself.

Additional concerns noted in the SDEIS and/or among the comments of many participants in the Duluth, Aurora, and St. Paul public hearings include:

•Mining and other development have left only 18 narrow wildlife corridors on the Iron Range. The loss of a wetland corridor makes it particularly hard for aquatic species to migrate.
•Draw–down and reduction in water quality of Colby Lake, which is Hoyt Lakes’ source of drinking water.
•Contamination of nearby wells.
•The impact of sulfate discharge on wild rice.
•Mercury levels in humans and wildlife.
•Tailings basin failure due to unforeseen weather events, human error, or simply giving out due to age.
•”Amphibole fibers,” similar to asbestos and causes similar health concerns. Worker safety is not addressed in the SDEIS.
•Migrating waterfowl feeding in the pit lake, which will have a high acid content.
If the SDEIS is approved, PolyMet will then apply to various agencies for 15 or more permits, including the right to withdraw water from Colby Lake and a permit to mine (DNR); for the management, treatment, and/or discharge of water and air emissions (MPCA); and for on–site sewage disposal and an on–site water supply (Minnesota Department of Health).

The SDEIS process includes a public comment period, which is currently open until 4:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 13. Anyone may comment, but agency representatives ask that comments be specific to the SDEIS. The best approach is to select one area and provide specific, relevant experiences or data. Opinions without specific reference to the issues raised in the SDEIS will not be given serious weight.

The SDEIS can be viewed online or downloaded at

Comments may be emailed to Email submissions should include a full name and mailing address. Written comments may also be submitted to:

Lisa Fay, EIS Project Manager
Minnesota Department of Natural Resources
Division of Ecological and Water Resources
Environmental Review Unit
500 Lafayette Road, Box 25
St. Paul, MN 55155–4025

Anne Stewart is a freelance writer who lives near Ely. Canoeing, camping, and snowshoeing are high on her activity list. She has, in the past, given testimony questioning the wisdom of non–ferrous mining in northeastern Minnesota. Her writing has appeared in Boundary Waters Journal, Ely Summer & Winter Times, and other local venues. In 2007, she published a children’s book, I Saw a Moose Today. Her website is

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