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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

PolyMet regulators need a second opinion on water flow


Will water and potential contaminants from the proposed PolyMet mine flow to the north or the south? It would seem a fundamental question, which we would expect a ten-year long environmental review would be able to answer.

But as we reported last week, there is a major disagreement over the issue among the agencies overseeing that analysis— and that’s reason enough for the Department of Natural Resources and its co-lead agencies, the U.S. Forest Service and the Army Corps of Engineers, to hit the pause button while they seek to resolve this point of contention.

The purpose of an environmental impact statement, after all, is to adequately disclose the anticipated effects of a major development project, such as a new mine. Yet, if we can’t even say for sure where any potential contaminants from the mine might flow, there’s a legitimate question about the adequacy of the EIS. That’s particular true given that an outstanding water resource like the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness could be threatened if the DNR and other co-lead agencies get it wrong.

As we reported last week, scientists at the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, or GLIFWC, say that’s exactly what’s happened. As a cooperating agency on the EIS, GLIFWC has taken its role seriously, and they’ve been raising concerns about the water model produced by Barr Engineering for several years.

While investigating this story, I was surprised to learn that none of the co-lead agencies involved had actually run the computer model, known as MODFLOW, themselves. Instead, that work was left to Barr, which has worked for PolyMet for years and likely will continue to do so if the project is approved.

Barr has a good reputation as far as I’m aware, and I don’t mean to suggest otherwise. But we are talking about science, and in the scientific community the importance of peer review is paramount— and that’s what GLIFWC has undertaken here. That’s not to say that GLIFWC is automatically right. Peer reviewers can be wrong as well.

But given the significance of the discrepancy and the seriousness of the implications, it would be irresponsible of the co-lead agencies in this instance to move forward with issuing a final EIS without having an independent third party examine the issue. The water model is foundational to the EIS, and its predictions were linked to other major findings in the study. If the model contains errors of the magnitude outlined by GLIFWC, there’s very little reason to trust the EIS’s findings.

While a pause in the process would certainly be a frustration to project supporters, there’s reason to believe a delay would make little difference given the current economic environment. If PolyMet were granted a permit today, it’s very questionable that any corporate backer would fund the project, at least in the short term. The mining and investor press is awash with stories of the falling prices and growing glut of a long list of base commodities, including copper. And Glencore, the current big-name partner on the PolyMet project, announced just last week that it was cutting its capital expenditure budget, as the commodities producer and broker tries to weather the economic fallout from the apparent bursting of China’s construction bubble.

Glencore’s stock is at record lows, and spending hundreds of millions of dollars to bring new copper capacity to market in the current environment would likely drive their stock price even lower.

That’s not to say the market won’t recover down the road. But it does mean that we have the time to get this right.

As it stands now, the co-lead agencies can’t, with good conscience, tell the public whether any contaminants from the PolyMet mine will flow north or south. Given that, how can they hope to defend a claim that the EIS adequately describes the effects? It’s a lawyer’s dream.

The co-lead agencies should resist the temptation for shortcuts. The initial suggestion by the DNR, that they could monitor water flow after the mine was operating and mitigate a possible northward contaminant flow after-the-fact, should be a non-starter. That’s how we did things 50 years ago, before Congress enacted laws like the National Environ-mental Policy Act, or NEPA. We simply created messes and then tried to figure out how to deal with them afterwards. The Colorado gold mine that sits above the Animas River near Durango is a good example of how that approach works out.

Let’s not guess about this. If there’s a major disagreement about something that truly matters, let’s take the time to find out who’s right. That’s just common sense.