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New environmental report on copper mining proposal due this week

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A long-awaited environmental review of a copper and nickel mining proposal in northern Minnesota is due for release this week.

As the Associated Press reports, state regulators requested the review of PolyMet's plan on the Iron Range after they deemed a 2009 report inadequate. The company plans a mine near Babbitt with a processing plant near Hoyt Lakes and hopes to begin operations in 2015.

The question before the state is whether the economic benefits of such a mine can be had without putting the health of northern waterways in peril. PolyMet's president and CEO, Jon Cherry, tells the AP the 1,900 page report concludes the answer is yes. But the story says environmental groups are not so sanguine, citing regulators' recent conclusion that wastewater from the project may need to be treated for up to 500 years.

The AP reports Friday's release of the document will mark the start of a comment period, with the Department of Natural Resources expected to finalize an environmental impact statement in the first half of 2014.

The Star Tribune spoke last week with analysts who think if the project is approved PolyMet will soon seek to expand it. One tells the newspaper the biggest economic gains would come in the second phase of the project, which could double or triple PolyMet's stock price.

PolyMet's copper-nickel mine would be the first in Minnesota. It's come under environmental scrutiny because the precious metals are bound up in rock that also contains sulfur compounds, the AP explains. Exposing those compounds to water or air could cause the release of sulfuric acid, heavy metals, or other contaminants.

PolyMet tells the wire service its latest plan includes a water treatment plant and steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Critics worry contingency planning for a treatment plant failure, a broken pipeline, or a torrential rain may be inadequate.

State Auditor Rebecca Otto traveled to Ely last week, where she explained that she voted against leasing state-owned land in the area for mineral exploration because she's concerned the state could be left holding a bill for the cleanup of environmental damage caused by a copper mine.

PolyMet's progression through the regulatory process is being watched by Twin Metals, a company that has proposed a copper-nickel mine near Ely.

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