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PolyMet opponents want law judge hearings

DULUTH, Minn. -- Duluth residents critical of the proposed PolyMet copper mine are asking the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to call in an administrative law judge to oversee independent hearings on the company's application for a mini...

DULUTH, Minn. -- Duluth residents critical of the proposed PolyMet copper mine are asking the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to call in an administrative law judge to oversee independent hearings on the company’s application for a mining permit.

Critics of the copper mine’s pollution potential said the independent oversight is critical for PolyMet’s application for the DNR “permit to mine,” the most important of nearly two dozen permits the company needs before it can start building out the state’s first-ever copper mine near Hoyt Lakes.

A group of about 20 people gathered on Duluth’s waterfront Monday to lend support to the idea, saying state law allows the DNR to request an administrative law judge as do many other state agencies deciding project permits that are controversial - such as Enbridge Energy’s Sandpiper pipeline and Minnesota Power's Great Northern transmission line - so-called contested case hearings.

The company already has applied for wetlands, water use, dam and other permits this summer, with several more applications expected in coming months, including the permit to mine application.

The company hopes to have all the permits approved and work started in 2017, along with securing financing to pay for the project, and then start mining about 18 months after construction begins.    

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Critics of the project say the administrative law judge process, rather than simply an agency decision, would make sure all viewpoints are aired and on the record before any permits are issued.

“The rules do not require contested case hearings, but they are standard when requested,” said J.T. Haines, a Duluth resident who says any pollution problems created by PolyMet would run downstream into the St. Louis River watershed and even Lake Superior. “We believe PolyMet's (permit to mine) application, when filed, should go in front of an administrative law judge, with evidence presented and subject to cross-examination. We believe this complete record should be developed before any permit to mine decision is made.”

The DNR appears to have the authority to call for a contested case hearing in mining permit cases. But DNR spokesman Chris Niskanen released a brief statement saying it’s too early for the DNR to decide if a contested case hearing is warranted.

“We appreciate the public’s input on the permit to mine process and the need for a rigorous review of permit applications,” the statement noted. “PolyMet has not yet submitted its permit to mine application and it would be premature for DNR to decide whether it is going to order a pre-decisional contested case hearing.”

Frank Ongaro, executive director of Minnesota Mining, the copper mining industry trade group, said the effort is merely to stall and delay the PolyMet project that has already spent 10 years in environmental review. Ongaro notes that the DNR already has pledged to hold both public comment periods and public meetings to allow comments on the permit to mine once it has been received and deemed complete.

The request for an administrative law judge “is just a complete waste of time and taxpayer money,” Ongaro said. “The process has been in place. It’s going to be a very open and public process - after the permit is submitted and deemed complete. All this will do is add additional delay, which is probably their intent.”

The project, estimated at $650 million to build, would employ about 300 workers for about 20 years. Supporters say the jobs would help diversify the Iron Range economy that is tied to the cyclical iron ore mining industry.

But critics say the copper, nickel, platinum, palladium, gold and other valuable metals that PolyMet plans to mine and process are locked inside rock that is high in sulfide. When that rock is unearthed and exposed to air and water, it creates acidic runoff that can pull heavy metals and other contaminants out of the rock and into nearby waterways.

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John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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