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PolyMet's copper mine plan passes a milestone on regulatory path

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A plan to mine copper and nickel on Minnesota's Iron Range has passed another regulatory landmark.

A previous environmental review has been revised to incorporate more than 50,000 public comments. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources sent the new version to the agencies that will decide whether to approve PolyMet Mining Corp.'s $650 million project.

PolyMet calls the release of the new document a major milestone in the review process.

The DNR provides an overview of the environmental review process, which started nearly a decade ago and could wrap up this coming winter.

In a separate fact sheet, the DNR notes that what it released this week is not a decision-making document. Instead, it will be used to inform the upcoming decisions by agencies that would need to approve the project.

What's being proposed?

PolyMet's NorthMet Project would include an open-pit mine near Babbitt and a processing plant near Hoyt Lakes, not far from the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

It would be Minnesota's first copper-nickel mine, which means it is setting a precedent for the permit process and regulation.

Environmental groups opposed to the project – including Friends of the Boundary Waters – note that the precious metals are embedded in rock that also contains sulfide, which produces sulfuric acid and other pollutants when it's exposed to air and water.

Backers of the project have cited the jobs it would create in northeastern Minnesota and the demand for the precious metals.

The Associated Press reports the newly revised document, which is more than 3,000 pages long, says the project would have no significant impact on water quality in the area but also notes that the wastewater it produces would need pollution controls indefinitely.

What happens now?

Now that the environmental review includes what was heard during a 90-day comment period that ended last year, it's being shared with several agencies, including the DNR, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the U.S. Forest Service.

A final Environmental Impact Statement, which is expected this fall, will be the last environmental review.

That means during the winter PolyMet would be able to apply for the various state and federal permits it needs. The Star Tribune says that totals 24 permits from nine different agencies.

DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr tells the newspaper: “Each of those individual permits will still be a hurdle. There’s no guarantee they will be granted.”

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