Improving the Environmental Review Process

Recently, Minnesota Academy of Family Physicians (MAFP) President Renée Crichlow, MD, and physician leaders from our Lake Superior Chapter (Emily Onello, MD, Jen Pearson, MD, and Kris Wegerson, MD) met with members of the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board to talk about the environmental review process and adequately assessing the impact on human health.

As family docs, we care for more patients than ANY other medical specialty. In our care for the whole person, the whole community, we support a Health in All Policies approach. Human health MUST be considered across all sectors and policy area
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A Leader in Promoting Health Impact Assessments

The MAFP has been a leader in promoting health impact assessments in environmental review. We have partnered with other top Minnesota medical organizations, like the Minnesota Medical Association, Minnesota Public Health Association and Minnesota Nurses Association, to advocate that human health impacts be included in the environmental review of the PolyMet NorthMet Project.

For those unfamiliar with the PolyMet Project, it’s a proposal to develop a mine and processing plant to extract copper, nickel and precious metals from the NorthMet Deposit in northeastern Minnesota.

MAFP Lake Superior Chapter member Jennifer Pearson, MD, said, “The MAFP has been working on this issue for five years. In medicine, we know there is a clear link between environment and human health. The possibility of sulfide-ore-copper-nickel mining in our region intensified our interest and concern about this connection. It’s one of the most toxic industries that exists. Once we open the door to this industry, there’s no turning back—the impact will be seen in the air, water, soil, fish, wildlife and eventually humans.”

The Impact of SOCN Mining

Sulfide-ore copper nickel (SOCN) mining has an extensive history of surface and ground water pollution and creation of acid mine drainage. In a study of 25 operating hard rock mines across the U.S., their respective Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) were submitted before operation commenced. All of the mines predicted compliance with water quality standards within their EIS; however, pollution from 85% of the mines near surface water exceeded water quality standards and pollution from 93% of the mines near ground water exceeded water quality standards.

Of the 10 environmental toxins listed of greatest concern to human health by the World Health Organization, SOCN mining releases 6 (mercury, lead, arsenic, particulate air pollution, asbestos and cadmium). These toxins can lead to cancer, lung disease, heart disease and neurodevelopmental disorders. SOCN mining also releases sulfates that, when present within the ecosystem, promote sulfate-reducing bacteria in sediments to methylate mercury already present in the environment.

Environmental Review Must Adequately Assess Impact on Human Health

The MAFP is concerned about the lack of assessment of the impact on human health included in the final EIS for the PolyMet project, specifically the limited information provided regarding the effects on human health from the impacts of the copper-nickel sulfide mine project.

We support the Environmental Review Advisory Panel October 2018 Final Report suggestions that the Environmental Quality Board provide MORE guidance on how to incorporate human health impacts into environmental review, including how to complete the Environmental Assessment Worksheet (EAW) with greater consideration of human health impacts, use EAWs as a screening tool for a Health Impact Assessment and more.

“Family physicians are uniquely qualified to serve as front-line guardians and educators of public health concerns for their patients. Primary care physicians are among the first to identify indicators that may suggest a link between a specific exposure and a community health risk. We look forward to continuing to work with the Environmental Quality Board and commissioners of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Department of Natural Resources and Minnesota Department of Health to ensure that health in all projects and policies becomes a reality in Minnesota,” said MAFP President Crichlow.

Take Action

Want to get involved in advocacy around this issue? Contact MAFP Director of Advocacy and Engagement Jami Burbidge, MAM.

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