PolyMet: Where do we go from here?

By Kathryn Hoffman. Kathryn Hoffman is Staff Attorney at the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy (MCEA)

The public comment period on the PolyMet Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement (SDEIS) ended on March 13.  MCEA worked with six experts in the fields of mine engineering, hydrology, geochemistry, barrier and containment strategies, and wetlands. These comments were, in many ways, the culmination of three and a half years of work for me, but I was standing on the shoulders of giants, as many previous (and current) MCEA staffers have also put enormous work into this project.

After a few weeks of decompressing, I am now returning to the PolyMet project. What are the next steps for this project?

Sometime in mid-2015 to 2016, the agencies will most likely issue a Final EIS. The Final EIS will have a 30-day public comment period, which is another opportunity for MCEA members to weigh in on this project.  After that comment period, the co-lead agencies – Department of Natural Resources, the US Forest Service, and the Army Corps of Engineers – will all need to make their own determination about the adequacy of the EIS.

But before a Final EIS may be issued, the agencies will need to categorize, read, and respond to all public comments. By some reports, the PolyMet SDEIS received nearly 60,000 public comments. To put this in perspective, the project that received the second-most comments in DNR history (which, not coincidentally, was the first PolyMet draft EIS) garnered 3800 comments. So the public participation during this public comment period is absolutely unprecedented, and the task of responding to all comments herculean.

When the co-lead agencies respond to the comments, they will need to make changes to the Final EIS. MCEA, the tribal governments, EPA and others have consistently raised concerns about this project that will require additional work to address. Most notably, the water quality model, which attempts to describe the amount of water, as well as water pollution, moving through the mine site to nearby lakes, rivers and wetlands, may well need to be redone. Re-running the water model is not simply a matter of changing the inputs and hitting “enter” – it requires calibrating the model and changing other variables to obtain results that make sense.  This process alone could take six months to a year.

The agencies’ willingness to improve this analysis in the EIS, and the project itself, depends upon the continued engagement of MCEA and other organizations, as well as the US EPA.

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