PolyMet EIS done, but project still faces hurdles

PolyMet seeks to use the old LTV Steel processing plant, formerly the Erie mine, near Hoyt Lakes for use as a copper-nickel mine processing facility. (PHOTO: Joel Dinda, Flickr CC)

PolyMet seeks to use the old LTV Steel plant near Hoyt Lakes, seen here in 2006, as a copper-nickel mine processing facility. The controversial project has dominated Iron Range headlines for a decade. (PHOTO: Joel Dinda, Flickr CC)

Last week the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources released the final Environmental Impact Statement for PolyMet, an important step in the company’s goal to open a new copper-nickel mine near Hoyt Lakes on the eastern Mesabi Iron Range.

A milestone, yes, but certainly not the end of the story. Marshall Helmberger’s Timberjay offers a pretty good explanation of where the process now stands. In essence, PolyMet may now proceed to the formal permitting process, something state officials and the federal EPA will determine based on their opinion of whether or not the company can deliver on the promises established in the EIS. Further, several parties — especially environmental groups and local Ojibwa bands — disagree with some of the science in the EIS regarding the potential risks to area waters and wild rice crops. That discussion will likely go to court and could stay there for some time even if permits are issued.

Of course, there remains the small matter of PolyMet attracting more than $1 billion in investment in the project for mining even to occur. Watching other mining companies try to squeeze operating revenue out of banks right now is a rather brutal sight.

Minnesota DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr will be on Minnesota Public Radio News with Tom Weber at 11 a.m. Friday morning to talk about the PolyMet EIS and other issues. That might be a good opportunity to ask questions and hear more about how the final document was released. Find out more at Tom Weber’s page at MPR.

Nevertheless, mining supporters are treating the EIS announcement like a victory, certainly using it to relaunch a public relations campaign.

What follows is commentary on my part.

A mining lobby group started running ads in the Duluth market supporting PolyMet. (I searched for a link, but could not find one). The ad was focused on the economic distress facing Hoyt Lakes. If you take out the few seconds at the end where it’s said that PolyMet offers hope to a seemingly hopeless community, the rest of the ad could just as well be an ad against mining. First, it conflates taconite mining with copper-nickel mining, and then suggests that the best way to bolster a mining workforce shrinking due to automation and efficiency is to do more mining. If that works for you, great, but I teach persuasion and would suggest this is at minimum a logical fallacy.

Most people know the PolyMet project and nonferrous/sulfide mining debate through sound bites and snap judgments shared in their social and professional circles. Having spent years mired in the position papers of all sides I am reaching the conclusion that both the economic benefits and environmental risks are real, but both are also overstated. Historians will call this debate the sound and the fury of an Iron Range region reeling from deindustrialization, signifying nothing. Or, at least, relatively little, given what’s happening to the the overall mining economy.

What matters most is the economy that will rise next. Will it be a product of neglect and desperation, or sound values and wise strategy? This is where my concerns are centered. All I see is work: Hard work to create new enterprise that harnesses our unique location and communities. But work is good. Work is how you make jobs.



  1. Jim Saranpaa says

    And here’s my take. Brown has been notorious for playing the devil’s advocate when it comes to mining. Mining, whether Brown and his minions like it, is a way of life in northeastern Minnesota.

    I say, let’s give this project the chance to get it’s feet off the ground. Heck, if we acted the way
    Twin Ciities and environmental wackos are acting now, the taconite amendment would have never passed and the Range would be desolate. While that might suit the aforementioned, the people who have lived here for generations would not agree.

    • Thanks for the comment, Jim. I live on the Iron Range. My dad was laid off by a mine. My great-grandfather and uncle worked long, successful careers in mining. My grandpa was permanently disabled at a mine. So I know what mining is and what it isn’t. You’ll note that I never said I was opposed to PolyMet getting off the ground. I have my doubts as to whether it happens, but I’m not personally opposed to it so long as financial assurances are met by the company. Further, I don’t have minions. Even my dog is skeptical about me. If you know where I can get some minions, let me know. That sounds sweet. Mainly, I’m concerned that PolyMet is an inadequate solution to the deep and growing economic troubles on the Iron Range. Its job figures are generally overstated. It’s financing is unclear at this time. If I play devil’s advocate, it’s because the devil is in details such as these.

  2. Another problem. If PolyMet gets permitted, even if PolyMet goes under financially, they can sell the permit–to any other mining company that would like to use the crushing plant and tailings basin–which will already be permitted. Twin Metals has some ore deposits that are slightly higher than PolyMet’s .25% copper. This ore band goes through Superior National Forest and along the BWCAW borders.
    Also, once a sulfide mine is given approval, the state basically says that it accepts that sulfide mining can be done safely in our state’s wetland areas. So other mines could sue for the value of their deposits if the state chose to renege on permitting another mine operation.
    The permitting of PolyMet opens the door to a sulfide mine district in northeast Minnesota (and also in the Tamarack area). This will be much larger of an area than the current taconite band–as the Duluth Complex of highly diffused mineralization lies in a triangle formation between Duluth, the North Shore, and along the BWCAW across to Lake Vermilion. Also the low grade (less than 1% metal content) would create 99% waste rock. Taconite currently creates about 75% waste rock.
    The permitting of PolyMet becomes a choice–of how we wish to see this area in 100 years–as a depleted mining industrial zone or as something else–maybe with clean water. Right now we are just re-inventing the 1900’s–with a mining industry that would create deeper open pits with bigger equipment and fewer workers–and that has a global legacy of leaving behind polluted waters.
    This mining controversy should never have gotten this far. When PolyMet’s DEIS in 2010 received a grade of EU-3–Environmentally unsatisfactory-inadequate–it should have been shelved. We currently do not have the technology to mine sulfide ores in this kind of wetland environment without polluting the environment and requiring water treatment for at least 500 years. Instead, this controversy has been allowed to fester, preventing us from envisioning different choices for our future.

Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.