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Lawmakers take up PolyMet project: is budget for cleanup enough?

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The next chapter in Minnesota's debate over whether to permit the state's first copper mine will play out at the Capitol.

The Associated Press reports a House committee on Tuesday will take up PolyMet's proposal to establish a copper-nickel mine and processing center on the Iron Range. In particular, the panel will look at whether the company is setting aside enough money to cover water treatment and cleanup costs even after the mine is closed.

PolyMet says its plan will cover the costs. The AP says legislative staffers have prepared pointed questions for the company and the Department of Natural Resources about whether taxpayers could be left holding the bag for billions of dollars worth of clearnup.

In December the DNR issued an environmental review of the PolyMet project, which is more than 2,000 pages. That opened a comment period which included three public hearings, the last of which was in St. Paul in late January.

The mining of copper and nickel presents a challenge because the metals are bound up in rock containing sulfides, which can create a toxic acid when exposed to water. The Minnesota legislative reference library offers some background on the issue and links to resources.

PolyMet has a plan to treat the water at the site of its proposed mine near Hoyt Lakes. But the AP says it's not clear how long water needs to be monitored and treated after a mine closes. An earlier environmental review said it could be hundreds of years, although PolyMet and the DNR say it may be much less time.

Jean Wagenius, the Minneapolis DFLer who will chair Tuesday's hearing, tells the AP "The challenge here is can a mining operation put enough money on the table to take care of any problems and still be profitable?"

Supporters of the proposal say the copper deposits under northeastern Minnesota could be a boon for the region's economy. The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce is among supporters of the PolyMet project who say state regulations ensure the mining will be done safely.

Critics including Friends of the Boundary Waters Wildnerness point to similar mining projects they say produced bankrupt companies and polluted waterways.

Tuesday's legislative hearing will focus specifically on financial assurance. The comment period on the environmental review continues through March 13.

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