- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 23, 2015

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) - The latest environmental review for the proposed PolyMet copper-nickel mine in northeastern Minnesota has swollen by more than a third to over 3,100 pages, reflecting nearly 58,000 statements that poured in during a comment period and opinions expressed at three heavily attended public meetings.

The state Department of Natural Resources submitted the review of the $650 million project, which environmentalists have opposed, to state, federal and tribal agencies on Monday, and made it available Tuesday to individuals and groups who requested copies under the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act.

While the DNR said the vast majority of the new comments were form letters spearheaded by various interest groups, there were also nearly 4,000 original submissions. The agency said it extracted more than 16,000 “unique, substantive comments,” which it tried to address in a 750-page appendix by grouping them into 24 themes, ranging from air and water quality issues to cultural and socioeconomics concerns.

PolyMet Mining Corp.’s proposed open-pit NorthMet mine near Babbitt and processing plant near Hoyt Lakes would be Minnesota’s first copper-nickel mining operation. It’s expected to create hundreds of jobs in a struggling area and set the pattern for environmental protections for future nonferrous mining projects in the vast, untapped copper, nickel and precious metals deposits in northeastern Minnesota.

Environmentalists object because the metals are locked in sulfide-bearing minerals that can leach sulfuric acid and other pollutants when exposed to air and water. The new draft says the project won’t have a significant impact on water quality. But it also says the wastewater will require pollution controls indefinitely, and that it’s not possible to predict when the need would end.

This version of the intricately complex review is still likely to change in response to feedback from the agencies over the summer before the final version is released for a public comment this fall, the DNR said. State and federal officials are expected to make their final decisions sometime this winter on whether the project can proceed.

Aaron Klemz, spokesman for Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, said his group had just begun to study the new version.

“We won’t be able to really determine what our exact response will be for a few days,” he said.

PolyMet CEO John Cherry said in a statement that the new draft shows that the mine “can responsibly produce strategically important metals in a manner that is protective of natural resources” and provides a foundation for creating “hundreds of new well-paying jobs for Minnesotans.

The previous version of the review, released in December 2013 as an update to a much-criticized original from 2009 - numbered 2,200 pages.

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