For Immediate Release, March 13, 2014

Contact:  Jane Reyer, (218) 248-1349
Marc Fink, Center for Biological Diversity, (218) 464-0539

Proposed PolyMet Mine on Superior National Forest Still Too Risky, Destructive to Proceed

DULUTH, Minn.— Conservation organizations from northern Minnesota today submitted detailed comments opposing the proposed NorthMet mine on the Superior National Forest, which would be the first copper mine in Minnesota’s history. The mine would destroy wildlife habitat and wetlands, release mercury and sulfate into wetlands in the St. Louis River watershed, and violate laws meant to protect air, water and public health.

The proposed open-pit PolyMet mine would require mechanical water treatment for hundreds of years at both the mine and plant sites, yet no information on funding for this perpetual treatment has been provided. The mine would permanently destroy more than 900 acres of high-quality wetlands, indirectly affect another 7,000 acres of wetlands, and ruin two square miles of critical habitat for the endangered Canada lynx.

“What we’ve learned after years of analysis by the agencies is that you can’t put a large-scale open-pit copper mine in the middle of the Superior National Forest and not leave behind massive damage to wetlands, waters and wildlife,” said Marc Fink, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity.

State and federal agencies first produced a draft analysis for the proposed mine in 2009, but were sent back to the drawing board after receiving severely critical comments from the Environmental Protection Agency, affected tribes and concerned citizens. After more years of study, the agencies’ analysis still leaves important questions unanswered, and continues to show unacceptable environmental impacts.

The project is located near the headwaters of the Partridge and Embarrass River watersheds, tributaries of the St. Louis River that flows into Lake Superior. Many of the streams and lakes in the area and downstream are already designated by the state as impaired due to past and ongoing water pollution from iron ore and taconite mining.

Although the permitting agencies claim mercury and sulfate loads to the St. Louis River will not increase because of the mine, conservation organizations found that some of the sources of these pollutants had been left out of the analysis, and that unsupported and overly optimistic projections had been used to minimize predicted impacts.

“On close review, we found that mercury and sulfate would be released directly into wetlands that lead to the St. Louis River. Elevated levels of mercury and sulfate in wetlands is precisely the circumstance that leads to increased levels of mercury in fish,” said contractor Jane Reyer, who conducted much of the review for the organizations.

In addition to violating the state’s water-quality standard for mercury, the organizations found that the agencies’ analysis revealed that the standards for lead, cobalt and aluminum would also be exceeded. “The amount of toxic waste that would be generated by this proposed mine is massive, and the agencies’ analysis does not adequately prove that our fish, wild rice and the families that eat them would not be seriously harmed,” said Le Lind of Save Lake Superior Association.

The proposed mine could also cause the same type of asbestos fiber contamination found at nearby taconite mines, which have led to mesotheliomas, lung disease and other ailments. “PolyMet says the fibers are not really asbestos and won’t cause harm, but the same arguments were used at the Libby mine in Montana where fibers from the mine have killed an estimated 400 people; we need to prevent this health threat to Minnesotans,” said Doug Wolf, attorney for Save Our Sky Blue Waters.

An open-pit mine is not allowed at the proposed site, which prompted the Forest Service to seek a land exchange to help facilitate the destruction of public resources. “The proposed federal land exchange that would allow PolyMet’s destructive and polluting open-pit sulfide mine should be rejected," said Lori Andresen of the Sierra Club North Star Chapter. “Our regulatory agencies have a duty to protect our public lands and resources, and this proposed mine would pose an unacceptable risk to our waters, wetlands, wildlife and communities, and must be denied.” 

The PolyMet mine is only the first of what is expected to be a number of highly controversial copper-nickel mine proposals for the Lake Superior watershed and affecting the Boundary Waters of Minnesota's Arrowhead Region.

“Hardrock mining, which includes sulfide mining, is described by the Environmental Protection Agency as America's most toxic industry, and the agencies’ analysis demonstrates that this toxic industry will cause irreversible damage to highly valuable and uniquely vulnerable natural resources of the state,” said Rebecca Rom of Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness. “Sulfide mining would undercut efforts to build and support a diverse, stable, sustainable economy in northeastern Minnesota.”

“We are deeply concerned about the threat posed by the PolyMet mine proposal to future generations, including the huge amount of funding needed for mitigation after the mine is closed, and the harm caused by increased mercury and other toxins,” said Kristin Larsen of Friends of the Cloquet Valley State Forest.

Today’s comments were submitted on behalf of Save Our Sky Blue Waters, Save Lake Superior Association, Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness, Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, and Friends of the Cloquet Valley State Forest. While a number of individuals contributed to the comments, the lead author is Jane Reyer, a former attorney with the National Wildlife Federation and resident of Duluth.

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