On Friday, November 6, 2015, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) released the PolyMet Final Environmental Impact Statement. READ the full text of the PolyMet FEIS here.

On December 14, 2015, WaterLegacy submitted to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a packet with over 200 pages of WaterLegacy technical comments, six expert reports and 36 new exhibits opposing a federal Clean Water Act permit for the PolyMet NorthMet project and demonstrating with clear evidence that the PolyMet Final Environmental Impact Statement is inadequate and must be rejected.

READ WaterLegacy Submitted Comments Opposing PolyMet’s Application for a Section 404 Clean Water Act and

READ WaterLegacy Comments Requesting Rejection of the PolyMet NorthMet Final Environmental Impact Statement as Inadequate.

On November 17, 2015, the U.S. Forest Service gave official notice of publication of a Draft Record of Decision supporting the exchange of 6,650 acres of Superior National Forest land for private lands so that the PolyMet NorthMet sulfide mine could be constructed. The Forest Service stated that the No Action Alternative was the environmentally preferable alternative, but selected the land exchange and the PolyMet sulfide mine project nonetheless. The Forest Service Draft Record of Decision emphasized concern that PolyMet would litigate if the land exchange was not approved and relied heavily on the PolyMet FEIS for its belief that feasible alternatives had been considered and that the PolyMet sulfide mine would have few adverse impacts on the environment or on tribal rights and resources.

On January 4, 2016, WaterLegacy submitted to the U.S. Forest Service, with courtesy copies to all other federal, state and tribal agencies, a 133-page document stating our legal objections to the federal land exchange, our six expert reports, 43 exhibits (including the 36 supporting prior comments), and a comprehensive appendix including tribal comments on the PolyMet FEIS and the record of WaterLegacy’s efforts to secure information on the land exchange under the federal Freedom of Information Act.

READ WaterLegacy Objections to USDA Forest Service Federal Land Exchange for the PolyMet NorthMet Sulfide Mine Project

READ an explanation of WaterLegacy’s Legal Objections to the Federal Land Exchange proposed for the PolyMet NorthMet sulfide mine project.

Review of the PolyMet Final EIS

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) determined that the PolyMet Final EIS was “adequate” on March 3, 2016.

Among the provisions cited by the DNR in determining the PolyMet EIS was adequate were the following:

“Wastewater Treatment Facility. WWTF at the Mine Site (upgraded in closure to include reverse osmosis or an equivalently performing technology).”

Why is this important? Protecting the Partridge River watershed and treatment of mine site pollution post-closure. To quote the DNR, 

  • How the mine site WWTF would be used: “Adaptive mitigation measures would be implemented to decrease the Project’s effects on the Partridge River prior to an actual effect if future monitoring and modeling, predict that the Proposed Project would not protect surface waters.“ 
  • The mine site WWTF would also be used for “Treatment of West Pit Water. Issue: West Pit water quality is not as expected..”

“Tailings Basin Facility. Upgraded tailings basin facility with rock buttressing and cement deep soil mixing for increased stability on the former LTVSMC tailings basin.”

Why is this important? The factor of safety to prevent tailings basin dam failure. To quote the DNR,

  • “Cement Deep Soil Mixing. Cementing deep soil mixing on north side of tailings basin to meet the required factory of safety.”

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers HAS NOT determined the adequacy of the PolyMet Final EIS. That determination will not be made until the Army Corps decides whether or not to grant PolyMet’s application for wetlands destruction under the Clean Water Act, Section 404.

WaterLegacy: Request for Supplemental Environmental Review of PolyMet Project Changes

In the course of applying for permits, PolyMet proposed changes to its mine project, including the following:

  • Eliminate tailings basin cement deep soil mixing: This change would impact additional impacts and reduce the factor of safety of the PolyMet tailings dams.
  • Eliminate mine site wastewater treatment facility: This change would reduce protection from pollution in the Partridge River watershed at and near the mine site and place concentrated mine pollution closer to the Partridge River.
  • Demand higher levels of water appropriation with greater potential wetlands impacts at the mine site in the Partridge River.


               Canoe on the upper Partridge River immediately downstream of proposed PolyMet mine site at sunset, fall 2017.

On June 29, 2017, WaterLegacy asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to require a supplemental EIS to review these project changes and to hold a hearing so members of the public could be heard.

Associated Press reported in the Star Tribune:

WaterLegacy says changes in the mine's tailings basin and wastewater treatment facilities, and a new disclosure of how much water would be pumped from the mine, obligate federal and state agencies to take a closer look — a move that could cause further delays in an already long process. The group made the request in a letter Thursday to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and other agencies.

Paula Maccabee, an attorney for WaterLegacy, said the plans changed between March 2016, when the DNR approved the final environmental impact statement, and when PolyMet started submitting permit applications in recent months. She called it a "bait-and-switch" to cut up-front costs. She also said the changes increase the risks of a catastrophic dam failure, pollution spills and damage to wetlands.

"The project keeps changing and these are not changes for the better," Maccabee said.

READ WaterLegacy’s June 29, 2017 letter requesting that the Army Corps require a supplemental EIS for the PolyMet project and Attachments to the letter here.

WaterLegacy: Permitting PolyMet would Violate the Clean Water Act

The PolyMet NorthMet project must be stopped now since it doesn’t meet legal requirements under the federal Clean Water Act and regulations for a Section 404 permit. A Section 404 permit is needed whenever a project will destroy (dredge and fill) waters of the United States including wetlands.

WaterLegacy’s Comments to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency demonstrate how the PolyMet plan fails to comply with the Clean Water Act:

  • The PolyMet project is not the least environmentally damaging alternative, and better technologies to protect wetlands, reduce seepage and avoid catastrophic tailings dam failure were not even considered.

  • The PolyMet project would result in ecologically significant increases in mercury contamination of fish affecting the Partridge, Embarrass and St. Louis Rivers, particularly increasing health risks for the developing fetus, infants, children, and people who fish for subsistence.

  • Pollution from the PolyMet mine and tailings sites would violate water quality standards and result in significant degradation of water quality.

  • Direct and secondary effects of the PolyMet mine would cumulatively destroy or degrade up to 26.9 % of the high value wetlands and peatlands in the Partridge River watershed.

  • PolyMet has no plan to compensate for most wetlands of the harm to wetlands that would result from the project and its meager plans for mitigation don’t meet legal requirements.


The Northeastern Minnesota (Ely/Babbitt, Cook/Orr, Tower/Soudan) Timberjay explained (12/17/2015):


"While the public has been focused in recent weeks on the adequacy of the Final Environmental Impact Statement, Maccabee, who serves as legal counsel for Water Legacy, said PolyMet’s failure to modify its project to limit its environmental impacts generally disqualifies its proposal from federal permitting, regardless of whatever decision the state’s Department of Natural Resources ultimately makes on the FEIS.

“We have shown that the PolyMet project doesn’t comply with Clean Water Act Section 404 regulations,” said Maccabee in a press statement issued Monday. “It would violate the law protecting wetlands, downstream fish and downstream human health to give this sulfide mine project a permit.”

READ WaterLegacy’s Comments on PolyMet Application for Clean Water Act Section 404 Permit

WaterLegacy: PolyMet NorthMet Final EIS is Inadequate and Must be Rejected


WaterLegacy’s comments on the PolyMet NorthMet FEIS demonstrate that the environmental review provided for Minnesota’s first proposed copper-nickel sulfide mine fails each of these tests for the quality, integrity, and content of an EIS.

Even where the FEIS has appeared to respond to comments, that response has been inadequate, if not affirmatively misleading.

The FEIS is highly reliant on the project proponent’s modeling and on unsubstantiated assumptions from the project proponent for its conclusions.

The Project alternatives analysis, intended by law to be the “heart” of the EIS, is a scant few pages of the FEIS, and inadequate documentation is provided to support the rejection of substantive alternatives. Other than a smaller federal land exchange to facilitate the NorthMet open-pit sulfide mine, no alternatives are considered.

The FEIS repeatedly provides a list of possible mitigation options without evidence of their efficacy rather than analyzing relevant and significant potential impacts.

The FEIS manipulates models to avoid consideration of cumulative impacts on water quality and potential violations of the water quality standards.

The FEIS fails to analyze issues of great significance and concern, including the effects of the project on mercury methylation, contamination of fish and resulting impacts to human health and environmental justice and the indirect and cumulative as well as direct impacts of the Project on wetlands and wetlands functions

READ WaterLegacy’s Comments on the PolyMet NorthMet Final Environmental Impact Statement

WaterLegacy submitted Expert Reports with our Comments

Brian Branfireun, Ph.D., final report on the effects of the PolyMet NorthMet project on mercury:

"The potential near-doubling of methylmercury export from methylating peatlands receiving an additional sulfate load from the proposed PolyMet development would be reflected in methylmercury concentrations in the upper tributaries, and the Embarrass and Partridge Rivers, given the role these wetlands play in supplying water to these streams and rivers.  Increased methylmercury would also be expected to impact the upper St Louis River, given the direct hydrological connection and known methods of methylmercury transport."


Morgan Robertson, Ph.D., final report on PolyMet’s plan for wetlands destruction and compensation:

"Most clearly inconsistent with applicable regulations and policy, the failure of in-kind replacement and the loss of difficult-to-replace aquatic resources are proposed for a mitigation plan that has both avoided the requisite watershed approach to wetlands compensation and proposed the majority of compensation outside the Lake Superior Basin. This proposal is impermissible and no agency discretion stretches far enough to allow this result."


Margaret Saracino, M.D., Duluth child psychiatrist:

"The adverse effects of methylmercury depend on timing and amount of exposure.  Methylmercury is a strong toxin that influences enzymes, cell membrane function, causes oxidative stress, lipid peroxidation and mitochondria dysfunction, affects amino acid transport and cellular migration in the developing brain.  Exposure in utero can cause motor disturbances, impaired vision, dysesthesia, and tremors.  Even lower level exposure can result in lower intelligence, poor concentration, poor memory, speech and language disorders, and decrease in visual spatial skills in children exposed to methylmercury in utero.  Fetuses, infants, and young children are four to five times more sensitive to the adverse effects of methylmercury exposure than adults."


John Ipsen, M.D. Ph.D., Duluth Family Practice Physician:

"In sum, the FEIS incompletely addresses particulate air pollution.  The analysis provided in the FEIS is inadequate to reasonably address the health risks of the proposed mine – risks to the mineworkers and to people living in the surrounding communities. A Health Impact Assessment from a qualified independent evaluator is necessary to clarify the risks of this proposal."


Donald W. Lee, Ph.D., P.E. reports on PolyMet tailings seepage collection and Category 1 waste rock seepage collection reports:

"The FEIS concludes that 90% of the tailings leakage that remains as groundwater will be captured and contained within a containment barrier surrounding much of the tailings pile and that 100% of the surficial seepage from the tailings will be collected and contained. . .The analytical support for these conclusions is based on assumptions of performance that are not justified or supported by data. Lacking any demonstration of the validity of the assumptions leaves the conclusions questionable.

The long-­‐term performance of the Category 1 waste rock stockpile is dependent on a water collection system composed of a cutoff wall surrounding the 526-­‐acre 240-­‐foot tall pile, and a drainage system within the cutoff wall. . . However, the proposed drainage system is unlikely to work as anticipated."


Bruce Johnson, Chemist/Biologist report on tailings chemistry:

"Data from the existing AMAX three-year tailing field study calls into question assumptions in the FEIS that tailings seepage would not adversely affect water quality or violate Class 2B standards to protect aquatic life."


Read New Exhibits submitted with WaterLegacy's Comments

WaterLegacy’s Comments on the PolyMet Section 404 permit and Final EIS also referenced our prior Comments on the PolyMet Supplemental Draft EIS.

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