ST. PAUL — Who will pay for possible negative consequences and clean-ups from PolyMet’s proposed copper mining site turned into a fiery debate Tuesday afternoon during a House committee meeting at the State Capitol.
The Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Finance Committee discussed the project’s financial assurance, a set of regulations ensuring that companies like PolyMet are held legally and financially responsible for any “unanticipated liabilities” that could occur during the life of the mining site.
The lengthy 5 1/2-hour meeting gave representatives of the mining industry, environmental conservation groups, state employees and a PolyMet spokesperson a chance to make their views known on potential payouts from PolyMet should an unforeseen event occur.
The meeting was marked by severe criticism of the project and the company by two DFL lawmakers.
But an Iron Range lawmaker, who supports the venture, said they took the hearing far beyond its intended purpose.
PolyMet officials say the copper/nickel/precious metals project in the former LTV Mining footprint near Hoyt Lakes and Babbitt will create 360 permanent jobs, hundreds more spin-off positions, and more than 2 million hours of construction work.
Opponents argue the first nonferrous mine in Minnesota will damage the area’s water quality.
But company officials and other supporters say the project will be done in an environmentally safe way with standards exceeding state and federal regulations.
The project is currently in the draft environmental impact statement phase, with the public comment period to end on March 13.
The company is paying for the entire EIS process. It has already invested more than $150 million into the venture, with $80 million of that going to environmental review. The total project investment is expected to be $650 million.
Co-lead agencies in the process are the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The DNR will respond to each comment presented and then will determine when to issue a certificate of adequacy for the project.
That would pave the way toward final permitting.
Also at that time, opponents could begin litigation against the agencies, but not the company.
Jess Richards, a Department of Natural Resources official, who seemed to agree with many mining supporters who say they trust current regulations that keeps companies such as PolyMet accountable, called the state’s financial assurance regulations “robust and adequate to protect Minnesotans.”
Promising vigilance, strict monitoring and, at a minimum, a yearly review of the site’s environmental impact, Richards said the DNR wouldn’t issue a permit “unless we’re confident that the financial assurance is protective of Minnesota’s taxpayers.”
Environmental activists didn’t agree.
“There will be un-captured seepage” from the PolyMet site, said Paula Maccabee, advocacy director and counsel of Water Legacy.
“Our only question is, how much? How polluted? And how soon?” she said.
Some committee members, particularly Rep. Andrew Falk, DFL-Murdock, also seemed unsure that the company could provide enough funds to correct a potential environmental problem.
He also questioned PolyMet’s business practices, stating that it could be a shell company with much less equity than what they reported.
Repeatedly requesting that Brad Moore, executive vice president of PolyMet Mining Corp., could provide additional details about their company’s finances and assets, Falk became visibly frustrated when Moore failed to answer specific financial questions.
Moore, however, assured the legislator his questions would be answered in detail.
“I wish someone would have been here to talk about finances, given that this is a meeting about financial assurance,” Falk said.
Moore replied, “I look forward to getting your list of questions so we can have the appropriate people answer them.”
Committee Chairwoman DFL Rep. Jean Wagenius also questioned PolyMet’s financial abilities. “There is no projection for the cost of cleanup, and what I’m trying to get at here is, how do we project the cost?”
But Rep. David Dill, DFL-Crane Lake, fired back quickly.
“You of all people should know how to ask the proper question. The question is, ‘How is this project going to fundamentally work?’” he asked.
Dill later expressed frustration that speakers and committee members frequently veered off topic during the meeting, oftentimes asking questions about unrelated employment, engineering or environmental issues, he said.
Stating the meeting was “far afield” from its intended topic, Dill said his fellow committee members became stuck in discussing the “minutiae” of the PolyMet mining site, instead of talking about the company’s legal responsibilities for cleaning up any future environmental hazards that could occur.
As long as environmental regulations by entities such as the DNR are followed, Dill said he had no problem with PolyMet moving into the Iron Range, especially if it could create jobs and a growing copper industry.
Though committee members still seemed concerned about the environmental and financial impacts of the proposed PolyMet site, Dill said he plans to see the project from proposal all the way to completion.
He said there is strong public and political support for mining in the Iron Range.
“If they want to (try to) stop the mining, I’ll find 68 votes to kill it,” he said.