Speaker pledges no 2014 mining bills

By Don Davis

The Minnesota House speaker will not allow any legislation to pass this year setting an amount PolyMet Mining Corp. should set aside to fix environmental damage done by its proposed copper-nickel mine.

“We are not taking up any legislation related to mining, one way or the other,” House Speaker Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, told Forum News Service on Friday. “The best thing is to let the process work its way out.”

One of Thissen’s committees held a 5½-hour meeting this week dealing with how much money the state should require PolyMet to pay up front to clean up any environment issues once the mine closes. PolyMet itself has said that perhaps $200 million should be available at mine closure, with a few million more a year for some time afterward.

Some environmentalists and others question whether PolyMet has enough money to handle potential cleanup costs and have suggested the Legislature take the issue out of the Department of Natural Resources’ hands and set a large financial amount so any contingency can be handled.

However, Thissen said the DNR should proceed with its studies, adding that he is confident the process will provide enough information that those in charge “can make the right decisions.”

“We do have this process in place,” the speaker said. “It feels like the information is getting out there. I feel this is going to be an extensive process.”

Thissen said that fellow House Democrats, who hold a majority of the votes, do not appear to be leaning “one way or the other” on the PolyMet issue.

From what he hears, Thissen said, all sides want jobs in the Iron Range while the environment is safe in the long term.

A PolyMet executive echoed those comments.

“We share Speaker Thissen’s desire that the regulatory process be allowed to work,” PolyMet Vice President Bruce Richardson said. “Because the environmental review and permitting processes are comprehensive and allow for public involvement, we’re confident that many if not all of the issues that are being raised today will be addressed at the appropriate time and place in coming months.”

Richardson said Minnesota has strong environmental and financial protection laws that PolyMet will meet “or do even better than what the law requires.”

A House Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Finance Committee meeting Tuesday dealt with questions about how much PolyMet should provide to take care of the environment.

Chairwoman Jean Wagenius, D-Minneapolis, said she has not seen a bill on the topic.

The DNR’s Jess Richards said his staff is looking at several mines in other states to get an idea about how much should be set aside for what is called “financial assurance” that environmental concerns will be addressed.

Richards said the DNR will hire additional financial experts to help the state determine whether PolyMet’s plan to repair any damage is sufficient.

However, Richards said, it is too early in the process to establish a financial assurance plan. Environmental studies now are going on, he said, and PolyMet has yet to even file a mining permit application.

PolyMet has spent $150 million to get to this point, including $22 million for an environmental review, and would spend another $450 million to build the mine and refurbish the old LTV taconite mine processing center for basic copper and nickel ore processing.

PolyMet plans to mine about 32,000 tons of rock just north of Hoyt Lakes every day, yielding about 76,000 tons of copper each year.

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