It could be years, not months, for PolyMet progress

PolyMet's proposed mine

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

Iron Range newsIt’s been several months since the public comments period closed for the environmental review and permitting process for PolyMet, a controversial proposed nonferrous mineral mine in Hoyt Lakes, Minnesota. Most had hoped for news about the completion of the Environmental Impact Statement and a clearer timeline for the final permitting by this fall. However, a Marshall Helmberger interview of DNR commissioner Tom Landwehr in the Sept. 24 issue of the Timberjay shows that it could be years, not months.

For those following this issue closely, Helmberger’s story is a must-read.

The reason for the delay, according to Landwehr, is the unprecedented number of primarily critical comments, many of which involve unique and extremely detailed scientific questions and concerns. About 58,000 written comments were received, which raise between 7,000 and 8,000 unique concerns or questions about the massive Draft EIS document discussed last winter.
From the story:

Indeed, it’s by far the largest such undertaking in state history, and that makes it difficult for state officials to even estimate when the job might be completed. Landwehr was blunt: “We don’t know how long it will take. We can’t even say months.”

That’s true, in part, because addressing some of the comments may require more information than officials have gathered so far. “It would not surprise me if we have to find new information, or if some remodeling is required,” said Landwehr. “But that’s the purpose of the comments. We want to do this right.”

So the obvious question is why do we have to deal with these delays? Why does it take so long? Can’t we do something to make it go faster? The tempting answer is, “Sure!” Most of the concerns raised are probably just delay tactics, right? Why let minutia hold up the wheels of commerce? Let’s force them to disregard whole categories of complaints, just to move it along. That’s certainly going to be the position of the most devout pro-mining individual.

Another way of looking at the issue, however, is through this question: Do we want to have a process that deliberately ignores comments and questions because of popular or political pressure? Won’t those ignored individuals then have legal recourse to sue their government and stop the process anyway? That’s what the regulatory agencies like the DNR see, and they don’t want their work to be negated by a judge or for the state to have to pay damages or legal fees. Further, if the public’s interest truly is in safe, responsible mining, these kinds of issues must be addressed in due time: either now, during permitting, or during a legal challenge after the fact.

Additional staffing for the DNR, EPA and MPCA might also help, but it’s hard to see support for that materializing anytime soon.

This is precisely why waiting on nonferrous mining to be the economic savior of the region is a losing strategy. Even if the permits and mines come — in 2016, 2017 or beyond — we will be wasting precious time and precious iron mining revenue propping up an economy built for the wrong century. I certainly understand why news of these delays would prompt call for reform. Let that reform include everything, including our economic development plans and tired old attitudes that place far too much trust in the whispered promises of mining companies.

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