Backers of a mining project expected to create hundreds of jobs and $242 million in economic impact fear it could hit a snag if Minnesota legislators pass a bill requiring the mining company to pay more money up front for eventual environmental clean-up.
PolyMet Mining Corp. is closing in on the government permits and approvals necessary needed to open a type of mine new to Minnesota, a $602 million project located in St. Louis County, at the eastern end of the Mesabi Iron Range. PolyMet would extract copper, nickel, cobalt and other minerals that would be used in medical and electrical devices, automobiles, jewelry and other products.
Sen. Jim Carlson, DFL-Eagan, said he doesn’t aim to derail the project but wants to establish safeguards in case a mining company pollutes the water, then tries to skip town without cleaning up.
"I want to make sure that our stakeholders, the taxpayers of Minnesota, aren’t left on the hook," he said.
Company and mining industry officials say the bill would delay PolyMet’s project and duplicate existing laws. Some think it is an attempt to quash the project.
"I think part of the real reason they’re pushing the bill is they’re trying to find ways to delay these projects and discourage investors from investing in Minnesota," said LaTisha Gietzen, PolyMet vice president of public, governmental and environmental affairs.
Carlson said he understands that there are laws in place but said he believes they need to be clarified. The bill would take portions of existing law and apply them specifically to this new mining industry.
"What I’d like to promote is that we look at these things as responsibly as possible and we understand all the possible, potential issues … and we address them upfront," Carlson said.
John Tuma, a lobbyist working with the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, said mining companies have a history of leaving behind expensive clean-up projects when they finish projects.
Under the bill, "you have to tell us how much that is going to cost and you have to put the damage deposit down upfront," Tuma said.
He pointed to the recent draft Environmental Impact Statement from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on PolyMet’s proposal as all the evidence bill supporters need.
Bharat Mathur, acting regional administrator with the EPA, wrote to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers regarding shortcomings he sees in the draft.
The EPA believes the statement underestimates water quality impacts and other adverse environmental conditions "that are of sufficient magnitude that EPA believes the proposed action must not proceed as proposed."
PolyMet’s Gietzen said the company will take feedback from the EPA and all other individuals and organizations that offer comments.
Opponents maintain that sufficient safeguards are already in place and insist that the bill can only slow economic development.
Frank Ongaro, executive director of Mining Minnesota, called PolyMet’s project "economic stimulus without costing the taxpayers a dime."
Iron Range Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, said PolyMet already has spent $25 million to comply with anti-pollution laws and he is worried that passage of the Carlson bill could delay the project up to three years.
"That’s the type of unnecessary bureaucracy that could kill about 1,000 jobs up in the Iron Range," he said.
Tomassoni said the length of the permitting process shows Minnesota is already environmentally tough. He added that the minerals PolyMet will mine can replace those imported from high-polluting countries.
"We’re basically contributing to the pollution of the world by buying from these countries," he said. "If we in Minnesota are really serious about this green economy, and I think we are, we should be contributing to jobs of a green economy and the products that are needed in a green economy."
Carlson denied he wants to harm the project.
"I think PolyMet will do a great job," he said. "I do not want to stop it. If people came to me and said they wanted to stop this kind of mining I told them I don’t want to be involved. "
The first hearings on the bill are scheduled in early March. Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, sponsors the House version of the bill.