Trust me: Polymet comment period was too short


What can you do in 90 days? You can grow your fingernails about a third of an inch in 90 days. In 90 days, the average American will drink 144 cups of coffee. And if you had the time to read 25 pages a day of dense technical material, you could read the entire Polymet Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement, or SDEIS. You might just need that coffee.

Polymet Mining Corporation is planning to mine for copper, nickel and other precious minerals in an extensive wetland area at the headwaters of the St. Louis River.

When the SDEIS was released by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in December, 2013, the public was given 90 days to comment on the document. That time period resulted in two options, both relying on trust, and both bad:

  1. Don’t even try to read it yourself. Trust the state and federal agencies and their contractors to do the right thing.
  2. Let outside experts you trust have just 90 days to review complex materials seven years in the making.

Trust the agencies?

Incredibly, citizens who testified at the three public hearings in January had just five or six weeks to review the SDEIS and prepare their testimony. At the hearings, people who did refer to the SDEIS said things like:

  • “I haven’t read the whole thing but I did look at the executive summary.”
  • “I can’t understand this myself, but…”
  • “I trust the agencies that developed this.”

Trusting agencies short-circuits the public review process. The public needs to examine and review the functions of the government that represents its interests. Anyone who goes to a city council meeting or follows the action in Washington, DC understands this.

Trust the rushed outside experts?

When the SDEIS was released on December 7, 2013, Minnesota Environmental Partnership member groups quickly reviewed the document and determined, among other things, that the SDEIS was overly long, unnecessarily multifaceted, and not written by or for laypersons. Groups quickly determined that critical information wasn’t even in the document but in hard to obtain supporting documents.

During the course of the 90-day comment period, substantive issues with the Polymet SDEIS became apparent, each of which could have been addressed by a longer comment period. We learned that the water models in the document didn’t even match with current conditions on the ground, not to mention the mine area after it’s impacted. Researchers found that basic information on water balance, water chemistry, geological conditions of the mine site, and potential pollutants was missing.

Yes, 20,000 citizen comments have been submitted already. But the experts whom citizens are supposed to trust haven’t had enough time. A number of professional conservation organizations, despite having access to the preliminary documents and having extensive staff resources and contracted experts, will not be able to meet the deadline. Their detailed analysis has found flaws buried deeply in the SDEIS, and now there’s inadequate time to frame comments. These groups just need an additional 30 days to complete their comments. But the DNR has refused to extend the comment period.

The entire process has been inadequate. The public should not trust the result. And so, like the fruit of the poisoned tree, the Final Environmental Impact Statement will be inadequate. And an inadequate EIS means the project cannot continue to the next stage, environmental permitting.