The financial assurance hearing for the proposed NorthMet nickel and copper mine drew a standing-room-only crowd to the Minnesota Capitol on Tuesday.
The plan put forth by PolyMet Mining has been mired in controversy over the environmental impacts to the northeastern portion of the state. If approved, the mine would be located in Babbitt, Minn., and the processing plant would be near Hoyt Lakes, Minn.
State lawmakers are poised to make a critical decision on whether or not to allow PolyMet to purchase and refurbish the old LTV Taconite processing plant that closed in 2001. The mining company believes there is enough ore to keep the plant and mine open for 20 years; however, many critics would prefer to see state leaders pass on the project altogether and lawmakers are keen to learn what the company plans to do after the extraction ends.
The financial assurance process is meant to ensure that PolyMet will set aside enough money to close the mine safely, but the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources only briefly covered those assurances in the 2,169-page environmental impact statement released in December.
The DNR's supplemental draft of the environmental impact statement estimates the closing cost at $200 million at year 11, with costs of $3.5 to $6 million in the long term.
At Tuesday's hearing, DNR representatives revealed that the agency has fielded more than 10,000 public comments on the environmental impact statement and is currently working to categorize them. The DNR will continue to accept comments through March 13.
The mine would be the first of its kind in the state, and critics have been vocal about the record of mining companies that have left bankruptcies and environmental devastation behind in other areas.
Environmental advocates are concerned because the metals are chemically bound in sulfide minerals that can produce acids and other pollutants that can damage water supplies and the ecosystem of the nearby Superior National Forest.
Jess Richards, of the DNR, told legislators that PolyMet would also be required to buy an insurance policy against a natural disaster at the treatment facility.
"Financial assurance is essentially the money that PolyMet would set aside to ensure that Minnesota's taxpayers would not have to foot the bill for the cleanup of the mine," she said.
Supporters say the mine will bring jobs to the area. PolyMet Mining estimates at least 360 positions would open at the mine itself, and another 600 indirect jobs would also follow.
The DNR is continuing to look at financial assurance plans from other open-pit mines across the country as they consider the PolyMet plan; however, critics warn that any plan should account for water treatment at the waste piles for hundreds of years in the future.
"The PolyMet SDEIS does not describe at all how much this would cost, how it will be paid for, or how Minnesotans will be protected from financial liability," BetsyDaub, with Friends of the Boundary Waters, said.