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New data, further review could delay Polymet mine project by months

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A key part of an environmental study of the proposed open pit copper mine in northern Minnesota may have to be redone, which could potentially set the controversial project back several months.

State regulators acknowledged on Thursday that new data raise questions about their previous analysis of how the Partridge River flows. Critics say the data throw into question whether officials really understand how the mine might affect water sources, the Star Tribune reports.

The new data stem from newly available information from a year’s worth of monitoring at a relatively new station closer to the proposed mine site, and hydrologists are weighing what the data mean, a state official told the Associated Press.

Critics cheered the admission that the water data need further review. "We think that this is a data-poor project and that more analysis needs to be done," Margaret Watkins, water quality specialist for the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, told MPR News.

State officials are now trying to determine whether they need to completely redo complicated computer modeling, and if they do, it could take "months," Steve Colvin, who has led the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources' environmental review, told the Star Tribune.

A spokesman for PolyMet Mining Corp. declined to comment to the Star Tribune about the potential setback.

PolyMet’s proposed Northmet project, hailed by the company as a job-creating "modern, safe mine" has been the subject of intensifying debate and criticism.

The operation would be the first copper-nickel mine in the state and create an economic boost on the state's Iron Range, say proponents – including many residents of the region. The mine would produce millions in tax revenue for St. Louis County and the state, in addition to the tons of metals manufacturers need to make the everyday items Americans take for granted, advocates say.

Critics of the project are deeply worried about the long-term affects the mine would have on water. And they are concerned about the mine's impact on the state's protected and prized Boundary Waters Canoe Area.

The project is now in the throes of a lively public comment period that has drawn much attention. More than 1,000 people flocked to a five-hour public hearing last week in Duluth, where a majority seemed to oppose the project; a meeting this week in Aurora drew about 650, a majority of whom supported the mine.

A final public info meeting at the St. Paul RiverCentre Tuesday is also expected to be well-attended.

The public comment period is scheduled to end March 13. PolyMet officials aim to begin developing the mine in the second half of 2014.

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