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DNR review: PolyMet mine would not pollute Boundary Waters

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A long-awaited report into controversial plans for a $650 million copper-nickel mine near the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area says it would not cause undue damage to the surrounding environment.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources released its environmental impact statement into PolyMet's plans for Minnesota's first copper-nickel mine, called NorthMet, which would include an open-pit mine near Babbitt and a processing plant near Hoyt Lakes.

At 3,500 pages, the statement is beyond gigantic – but here are a few of the headline findings.

PolyMet's plan to limit pollution acceptable

According to MPR, DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr said the plans PolyMet has to treat leftover waste water from the mines "would meet all state standards."

The news organization says the report concludes the runoff from the mine "will run at volume low enough that only a relatively low level of polluted water could escape the escape the company's planned water treatment systems.

But wastewater would have to be treated indefinitely

With objectors to the project highlighting one of the main pollution risks from PolyMet's plans (which the impact statement agrees with) is that the metals being mined are locked in sulfide bearing minerals that can leach sulfuric acids and other pollutants when exposed to air and water.

As a result of water being contaminated by sulfates and potentially leaking into the environment, the impact statement says wastewater from the project would have to be treated "indefinitely" to prevent pollution, according to the Associated Press.

If polluted water does leak, it won't reach the BWCA

MPR notes the impact statement agrees with models provided by PolyMet that any water runoff from the mine "would not flow into the Boundary Waters or the Voyaguers National Park."

This contention is unlikely to quell the concerns of objectors who don't believe the plans in place do enough to protect the northeast's "fragile" environment. Opponents are expected to release their reaction to the report next week.

PolyMet must clean up after itself

Gov. Mark Dayton has previously said he plans to hire and outside law firm to investigate PolyMet's finances, to ensure they have enough money with which they could clean up any spill that has the potential to harm the environment.

This requirement isn't just there while the mine is operational either, as AP notes the impact statement demands PolyMet also has to stump up the cash to ensure all cleanup costs are covered "for as long as necessary after it closes."

What are the implications?

As the Star Tribune notes, PolyMet would be the first company to tap into the copper-nickel reserves that stretch from the Iron Range to the BWCA, and clearing a path to allow it to mine could have huge implications for future development in the area.

The public now has 30 days to comment on the new Environmental Impact Statement, while two other federal agencies have their own reviews to complete – including the U.S. Forest Service, which owns the land PolyMet wants to mine, the DNR says. PolyMet will have to provide the forestry service with a similar area of private land to make up for it, according to the Star Tribune.

Then in February, the DNR will decide whether the impact statement was an adequate review of the environmental implications.

As the Duluth News Tribune says, if it's deemed adequate, it then goes through to the permitting stage, at which point it is likely to be a target for litigation. It also must show financial assurance that it can clean up any problems caused by the mine.

Heavily involved in the decision process will be Gov. Mark Dayton, who has to weigh the economic and employment benefits it would bring against the potential environmental impact on what is arguably the most beautiful and unspoiled corner of Minnesota.

He has previously said it would be his most "momentous and difficult" decision as governor, and is likely to come to his conclusion in late 2016.

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