March 16, 2018 VIA US MAIL AND E-MAIL
Commissioner John L. Stine
Minnesota Pollution Control Agency
Division: Commissioner’s Office
Location: St. Paul -- 6
520 Lafayette Road
St. Paul, MN 55155
Re: NorthMet Draft Air Quality Permit, Water Quality Permit, and 401 Certification
Dear Commissioner Stine,
Duluth for Clean Water objects to the draft water quality permit, draft air quality permit, and draft Clean Water Act Section 401 certification (wetlands) related to the PolyMet Mining Co. NorthMet proposal. Our objections center on two fundamental problems with the permits as drafted: 1) long-term health impacts of the proposal on the residents of downstream communities are unknown, and 2) long-term water treatment of the proposal is undefined and unreliable.
Duluth for Clean Water is a Minnesota nonprofit based in Duluth, with volunteers and members around the Duluth area. Our mission is to promote a safe and healthy future for the St. Louis River Watershed, Lake Superior, and the communities who reside thereon. We have participated in the administrative processes concerning the NorthMet Mine proposal by submitting comments, retaining expert consulting services, and attending and speaking at public hearings. Our members live downstream from the proposed PolyMet operation. We drink water from, eat fish from, and rely fully upon the St. Louis River and Lake Superior for our future.
Our position is that the NorthMet draft permits are insufficient to protect Minnesota, especially downstream communities, and should be denied.
1. Cumulative human health impacts have not been assessed.
PCA's mission to “protect and improve the environment and enhance human health” based on the core value that “decisions and policies are supported by data and analysis” is instructive and should guide this decision.
Heavy metals are neurotoxins that affect brain development. Pregnant and nursing mothers, infants, and young children would be most impacted by exposure to these metals. Mine waste, especially from nonferrous hardrock mining, poses a significant human health threat downstream. Given these realities, we are extremely concerned that PCA and other state agencies have so far declined to evaluate impacts to human health from the proposed NorthMet project through an independent Health Impact Assessment.
We are grateful that PCA promotes a “health in all policies” approach, and we are grateful for the work of the Minnesota Academy of Family Physicians (and other medical professionals) who requested that a “comprehensive, independently produced HIA be completed for the PolyMet NorthMet Project out of a concern for the health of Minnesotans.”
It is effectively impossible for us to respond fully to this new-to-Minnesota proposal for impacts to air and water quality, when the cumulative impacts to human health have not been analyzed and presented. There is ample reason to conclude -- based on the history of this type of mining as the nation’s most toxic industry -- that an HIA is a necessity for a data-driven analysis of these draft permits. The lack of an HIA for this dangerous proposal is a clear failure in the process.
Our position is that it would be an unconscionable failure to issue permits for this proposal to bring this toxic and unfamiliar industry to Minnesota when long term health impacts have not been studied or communicated. We object.
2. Water Quality Permit would not protect downstream communities.
It appears that the draft water quality permit would not set limits on polluted seepage through groundwater to drinking water or surface water, and would not provide necessary monitoring, meaning that pollution seeping from groundwater and upwelling in wetlands and streams in violation of the Clean Water Act could go undetected. We object to the draft water quality permit on this basis.
3. The draft water quality permit violates Minnesota law requiring maintenance free closure.
Minnesota Administrative Rule 6132.3200 requires that a mining area “be closed so that it is stable, free of hazards, minimizes hydrologic impacts, minimizes the release of substances that adversely impact other natural resources, and is maintenance free.” Closure is defined as “the process of terminating and completing final steps in reclaiming any specific portion of a mining operation. Closure begins when, as prescribed in the permit to mine, there will be no renewed use or activity by the permittee.”
The NorthMet proposal currently anticipates cessation of activity at year 30, meaning “closure” would theoretically be at that date. The DNR's permit to mine, meanwhile, has no set term, effectively meaning that there is no closure defined at all.
Here is a scenario that concerns us, and one which we would request that you consider: Let’s imagine that an applicant has an extensive system of water controls that they plan to use, and, if everything goes perfectly, things would be mostly fine for a while. The question, especially for downstream communities, is, what do those controls look like in twenty years? Problems with non-performing mines develop over decades, and applicant companies have a history of abandoning controls as soon as they are legally, or just financially, able. Claims about the future study of “passive controls,” and an incredibly extensive system of liners, trenches, pumps, caps, and pipelines -- all of which would require perpetual maintenance to work -- do not reassure us.
The permits as drafted anticipate water treatment for centuries or longer, maintaining hydrologic impacts, release of substances, and continuing to pose potential hazards beyond any (undefined) “closure” date. This is a clear violation of Minnesota law, including with regard to the draft water quality permit. It appears, then, that under this permit regime as drafted, PCA’s enforcement of any water quality permit it may issue would be difficult if not facially impossible.
We are, quite simply, not protected by these draft permits over the longer term. That’s not only a legal problem under Minnesota’s closure requirements, it is clearly an ethical problem as well. We object.
4. Downstream communities have not provided consent.
Duluth, Carlton, Cloquet, and the many other communities downstream of the NorthMet proposal have not been directly consulted on the PolyMet proposal, and some have vocally objected. Simply put, these communities have not consented. This includes the sovereign Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, whose concerns have not been fully integrated into permits or the NorthMet project design.
Copper sulfide mining would be new to Minnesota, and the legal and regulatory regime is untested and dated. Downstream consultation and consent should be required for a proposal as dangerous as this. We view the lack of downstream consent, including the absence of downstream consent with regard to the so-far-undetermined cumulative health impacts, as a fundamental failure in this process to date, and we request that PCA recognizes this failure in its evaluation of the proposal. We object to the draft NorthMet permits on the basis of the lack of consent of downstream communities and urge that they be denied.
The future health and prosperity of northeastern Minnesota depends on protecting our rare freshwater complex. We appreciate PCA’s caution that groundwater levels have declined, and that “the prognosis turns downright grim” when the growing problem of groundwater contamination is factored in. “The bottom line on groundwater? We can run out of it.”
If permitted, the NorthMet project would put us at substantial, and insufficiently accounted for, risk. Minnesotans should anticipate, based on the significant history of promises and non-performance by applicants for similar permits around the US, violations, exceedances, and regular permit revision applications at best, and at worst, outright failures to control pollution at unimaginable cost to our communities.
The citizens of Duluth and other downstream communities are relying on the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to fulfill its vision that “clean water, air, and land support healthy communities and ecosystems, and a strong economy in Minnesota.” We urge that you deny the draft water quality permit, draft air quality permit, and draft Clean Water Act Section 401 certification (wetlands) for the proposed NorthMet project.
We would appreciate an opportunity to discuss our concerns with you in person as well and can be reached at the below contact information for scheduling. We have included a poem about our watershed from one of our members below.
Libby Bent, PhD, Inorganic Chemistry, Duluth for Clean Water
John Doberstein, Realtor, Duluth for Clean Water
Deanna Erickson, MEd, BS Natural Resource Mgmt, Duluth for Clean Water
Mae Gackstetter, MS, PA(ASCP), BA Biochemistry, Duluth for Clean Water
JT Haines, JD MPP, Duluth for Clean Water
Bridget Holcomb, MPA, BS Biology, Duluth for Clean Water
Duluth for Clean Water
The blood of Lake Superior
runs in veins
reaches beyond the blue horizon,
seeps deeper than what we know.
The Lake of unpredictable winds,
and iron ships,
the famous outline on vacationers’ t-shirts
on forearm tattoos,
the Lake to whom we pledge allegiance
the Lake with whom we live
is limited only by topography.
She is held only by gravity.
The Lake is pooling in snowmelt
in my backyard this afternoon.
She is roaring down northern canyons,
spreading quietly into estuaries.
She is seeping through rocks,
through tailings piles,
eroding the land that feeds her
and deepening her own indentation into sand and volcanic stone.
Rivers as her arteries, each with a year-long heartbeat,
high water, then low.
Rivers as her children
Children from whom there is no separation.
Rivers as gifts
Rivers both birth and death carried to her shore.
-- Deanna Erickson, Duluth
(written for the One River, Many Stories journalism project focused on the St. Louis River in Duluth, MN.)