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State approves environmental review of $650M PolyMet mine

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State officials approved an environmental review into a controversial copper-nickel mining project in northern Minnesota.

The Dayton administration confirmed that the Department of Natural Resources' (DNR) environmental impact statement published in November was adequate, paving the way for PolyMet to pursue its $650 million mining development in the Iron Range.

The announcement was made by DNR commissioner Tom Landwehr, who said the work went into the environmental impact statement (EIS) was "deliberative and thorough."

"We are confident this document has thoroughly examined the important environmental topics and has addressed them," he said of the 3,500-page report.

PolyMet's plans for Minnesota's first copper-nickel mine is called NorthMet, and would include an open-pit mine near Babbitt and processing plant near Hoyt Lakes.

The DNR's announcement on Thursday comes after an earlier EIS from 2009 was deemed unacceptable by federal officials. Now that it's been deemed adequate, Polymet can begin the lengthy process of seeking the necessary permits, during which it is likely to face legal challenges.

The DNR has also pointed out that this isn't the end of the state's involvement, saying more environmental analysis will be required during the permit stage.

The plans and the controversy

As The Star Tribune has previously reported, PolyMet wants to be the first company to tap into the copper-nickel reserves that stretch from the Iron Range to the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area, and clearing a path to allow it to mine could have huge implications for future development in the area.

The Boundary Waters is Minnesota's most famous area of unspoiled, natural wilderness, and PolyMet's proposals were met with concern by those who want to ensure its protection from any pollution caused by nearby mining.

But the DNR determined in its 3,500-page review that the pollutions safeguards proposed by PolyMet are "acceptable" and it wouldn't cause undue damage to the Boundary Waters and the surrounding environment.

The DNR did say any wastewater emanating from the mine would have to be treated indefinitely to prevent sulphuric chemicals from leaching into the environment, but agreed with PolyMet models that any wastewater that did leak would not reach the Boundary Waters or the Voyaguers National Park.

Dayton must weigh the environmental concerns against the economic ones, coming against a backdrop of financial hardship in the Iron Range amid a downturn in the iron ore mining industry that has seen thousands of workers lose their jobs permanently or temporarily.

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