PolyMet Mining permits and environmental review process
The State of Minnesota validated the Final Environmental Impact Statement for the PolyMet NorthMet project on March 3, 2016, marking the end to an extensive review process that spanned nearly 10 years. The review was completed in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act and the Minnesota Environmental Policy Act by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other state and federal agencies. It is the largest and lengthiest environmental review ever conducted in Minnesota.
The environmental review demonstrated that the NorthMet project as designed can meet all applicable state and federal environmental standards. Its completion paves the way for the company to seek the more than 20 permits that will be required to build and operate the mine. This process commenced in April 2016.
You can track the progress of the permitting process on a state-sponsored website dedicated exclusively to providing information about PolyMet permits.
Following is a brief summary of the major steps in the environmental review and permitting process.
2004 to 2010 Initial environmental review
Background studies and informational gathering begins in 2004 and continues today. These activities include wetlands delineation, archeological surveys, baseline water quality studies, plant and wildlife surveys and aquifer investigations. PolyMet works with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (state lead agency) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (federal lead agency) to develop an Environmental Impact Statement, a document designed to gather and disclose information about the proposed project, identify potential environmental effects and determine what issues and alternatives will be addressed. The draft document is published in November 2009 and undergoes a public comment period. In February 2010 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rates the document poorly and recommends that a revised or supplemental EIS be developed with additional information.
2010 to 2013 Supplemental draft Environmental Impact Statement preparation
The co-lead agencies develop a Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement. In October 2010, the U.S. Forest Service Superior National Forest joins the DNR and USACE as a co-lead agency while the EPA and local tribal bands serve as cooperating agencies in preparing the SDEIS. Expanding on the existing draft Environmental Impact Statement, this document:
- Reflects responses to comments received from the public and government agencies during the Draft EIS comment stage.
- Integrates key project improvements, modifications, alternatives and mitigation measures to minimize environmental impacts.
- Incorporates the proposed land exchange between the USFS and PolyMet Mining, the reason for the USFS joining as a co-lead agency.
Download the DNR’s fact sheet on project changes since the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) [PDF] in 2009.
December 13, 2013 to March 13, 2014 SDEIS public comment period
The co-lead agencies publish the SDEIS, which is available on the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources website. The document undergoes public review. The DNR hosts well-attended public comment meetings in Duluth, Aurora and St. Paul.
December 13, 2013 The USACE publishes PolyMet Minings Application for the Clean Water Act Section 404 Permit (federal wetlands permit)
The application undergoes public review and comment concurrent with the review of the SDEIS. This key federal permit covers mitigation and replacement of wetlands that will be affected by the project and ensures there will be no net loss of wetlands because of the project. The permit is one of a number of federal and mostly state permits that will be required of the project before any construction or rehabilitation work can begin. Permits for PolyMet Mining cannot be issued until after the EIS is finalized.
Download the DNR’s fact sheet on the PolyMet project and wetlands [PDF].
March 13, 2014 EPA issues EC2 rating for SDEIS
The EPA rates the SDEIS as EC2 [PDF] (Environmental Concerns), which is among the highest ratings a project such as this can receive from the EPA. In its cover letter, the EPA expresses appreciation for the considerable improvements made to the document since the original 2009 draft.
June 22, 2015 Preliminary Final EIS Released for Internal Review
The preliminary draft EIS undergoes internal review by the co-lead and cooperating agencies prior to publication of the Final EIS. The preliminary final draft EIS incorporates the co-lead agencies’ analysis of, and responses to, approximately 58,000 comments from the public on the supplemental draft EIS. Final changes are made in preparation for the Final EIS being published.
November 6, 2015 Final EIS Completed and Released
The NorthMet Final Environmental Impact Statement is completed and posted to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources website. It is formally published in the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board (EQB) Monitor on November 9, and the Federal Register on Nov. 13, 2015. Publication of the document in the EQB Monitor marks the beginning of a 30-day public review period, which was later extended by one week. In releasing the document, the DNR said the co-lead agencies have brought the highest level of rigor and objectivity to the NorthMet environmental review and that the process has been thoughtful, independent and thorough. The Final EIS demonstrates that PolyMet can mine and process copper, nickel and platinum group metals in a manner that complies with the law, protects the environment and creates hundreds of high-paying jobs.
November 13, 2015 USFS Publishes Draft Record of Decision on Proposed Land Exchange
The U.S. Forest Service publishes its Draft Record of Decision in support of the proposed land exchange, marking the beginning of a 45-day objection period. The forest service in its draft decision says the land exchange ensures mineral resources are produced in an environmentally sound manner contributing to economic growth.
December 21, 2015 EPA Submits FEIS Comment Letter to Co-Lead Agencies
The EPA’s official comment on the adequacy of the Final Environmental Impact Statement indicates that the FEIS is adequate and any remaining questions it has will be addressed in permitting.
Download the EPA’s letter to the DNR [PDF] for details.
March 3, 2016 State Makes Adequacy Determination, Validates EIS
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources determines that the Environmental Impact Statement for the NorthMet project meets the state’s standards for adequacy, effectively marking the end of the environmental review process for the state and clearing the path for state permit applications. Calling the process “deliberative and thorough” in its news release, the DNR said, “we are confident this document [EIS] has thoroughly examined the important environmental topics and has addressed them.”
The US Forest Service and US Army Corps of Engineers must issue their own Records of Decision on the Final EIS. Once the the final Records of Decision are issued by these federal agencies, the Environmental Review process ends.
April 19, 2016 State Initiates Permitting Process
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in partnership with the Pollution Control Agency and Department of Health holds a Permitting Pre-application Information Meeting in Aurora, marking the official beginning to the state’s permitting process for the NorthMet project.
PolyMet will use the technical data and analyses developed during the Final EIS process and guidance from the state agencies to prepare state permit applications. The timeline for submitting and obtaining permits will be different for each permit, but the process is much more prescriptive and linear as outlined in state statutes and regulatory rules then the more open-ended environmental review process.
The major permits that PolyMet will require include a Permit to Mine, an integrated State Disposal System/National Pollution Discharge Elimination System Permit (water), and Air Quality Permit and a Section 404 Permit (wetlands).
The company’s current focus is on permitting and securing construction finance so the project can move forward into construction promptly upon receipt of permits and completion of the land exchange.