PolyMet EIS out Friday; what happens next?

Iron Range newsThis Friday, U.S. officials will release the environmental impact statement for the proposed PolyMet mine near Hoyt Lakes in northern Minnesota. The project, which would mine copper, nickel, palladium, and other nonferrous minerals, has been part of a long-boiling political and cultural controversy for more than a decade. And while the EIS won’t resolve that controversy, it will provide key details that will allow the permitting process to continue and final debate to focus on previously assumed information.

Minnesota Public Radio’s Elizabeth Dunbar and Dan Kraker explore the question of environmental risk vs. economic opportunity in nonferrous mining, the cornerstone contention of the issue. You may find their FAQ section or timeline helpful for catching up on the debate.

My writing on the topic can be summarized as follows:

  • This new mining is not like iron mining. Sulfide mining (crushing rock that release sulfides into water runoff) carries elevated environmental risk and requires vast long term environmental mitigation. Technology exists that would allow responsible mining, but it is very expensive. PolyMet has said it is committed to using the available technology, but no one can ensure what future owners or regulators will be willing to do.
  • There would be an economic benefit to mining the ore, which is plentiful and includes ores used in increasingly popular new technology including the device on which this blog is written. One can see advantages for Minnesota-based tech companies and manufacturers.
  • New mining’s local impact on employment on the Iron Range would be helpful, but is almost certainly overstated and would not backfill the mining jobs lost since the economic collapse of the 1980s.
  • No mining community enjoys long term economic stability without diversification outside mining. Ever. Since Rome. Before Rome. This debate has stymied discussion of economic diversification on the Iron Range.

I am confident that all of these things are true. I believe them all at the same time. It leads me to a position of caution on nonferrous mining. So the coming months represent a period of information gathering for me, not a time to argue for or against the issue. I’d recommend the same to all concerned.

So with an behemoth 1,800 page document set to drop on Friday, what can we expect? Well, here are my expectations:

Some of the same

Expect that the first things you hear will be very similar to the things you’ve heard about for the last several years. Supporters and opponents will quickly glom onto details that support their cause, as the document will contain examples of both. This is a big ol’ earth-digging, water-changing mine, and PolyMet has an elaborate plan they say makes it safe and beneficial.

Financial assurance

How much money will it cost to mitigate the environmental impact of sulfide mining? Who will pay? How much “financial assurance,” or insurance, will PolyMet have to pay for to get the permits it requests? These are real numbers that go on what had previously been a theoretical ledger.

Follow the money

As this John Myers Duluth News Tribune story shows, PolyMet — which has privately funded itself thus far — needs $650 million to start mining. It has already raised about $150 million, much of it from Glencore, and is confident the rest is out there once the permitting process is unjammed.  The biggest thing that could start or stop this project is how investors react to the EIS’s call for long term environmental costs (which will be incurred through technology and litigation from opponents). If the money shows up, you have a win for the company. If the money dries up, you have a win for the opposition.

Prepare for the public comments

The public comment period begins in January after the holidays. Expect several very emotional hearings in which supporters and opponents dig into the relevant details of the EIS. Some of the talking points will be the same but, at long last, both sides will have to work off the same documentation. This fact will eliminate some of the noise that has dominated the debate thus far.

Don’t expect agreement

Do I need to say this? The strongest supporters and opponents of proposed new mines are worlds apart and see the debate through fundamentally different world views. It’s not just Democrats vs. Republicans or liberals vs. conservatives. It’s not even just jobs vs. the environment. It has to do with why you live in northern Minnesota and what you think life here should be like. This debate is personal and it’s not going away. Blessed be the peacemakers. May leaders have courage to make hard decisions for the right reasons.

Polymet's projection of its mine by Year 11 of operation. Polymet

Polymet’s projection of its mine by Year 11 of operation. Polymet


  1. Paul Schoonover says

    Thanks for your always-thoughtful commentary on this issue.
    I agree with you on all points except I am unawar how Minnesota (or even national) tech companies and manufacturers would benefit directly from this mine when my understanding is that all of the extracted metals will be shipped away and sold on the global commodities market via standing agreements with 30-something-percent owner of Polymet, Swiss-giant Glencore. Please explain, if you could. Thanks.

  2. All minerals are sold on a global marketplace. There’s no other way to get minerals. But proximity of natural resources is a factor in reducing cost for producing finished metals and products. That’s why it might be hard to determine exactly where Minnesota iron ore ends up in the steel market, but the fact that it’s here is a factor in lowering domestic steel prices. Lower cost, available steel is what manufacturers need; and could be a factor in allowing U.S. tech businesses that use these other minerals as well. I have no illusions that the minerals from this mine will go into a happy vortex and produce my next iPad. I’m well aware that it’s a messy, complicated deal.

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