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Antofagasta didn't do it right in Chile, but says sulfide mining in Minnesota will be different -- trust us

ELY, Minn. — Representatives of the sulfide-mining industry have repeatedly asserted that sulfide mining must be done in Minnesota instead of in countries where the regulations are not as strong. Frank Ongaro of MiningMinnesota declared, "We have a chance to mine here in a state that cares about the environment as opposed to somewhere it might be done with less restrictions."

The absurdity of such an assertion is that a regulation does not mine — a company does. The company chooses how it mines, and how much of its profits it is willing to spend to keep the environment safe. Or how many fines it is willing to pay instead.

David Oliver of Duluth Metals said, "There is an intent and desire by people in this industry to do it right here [in Minnesota]." "Right" meaning to do it "without contaminating any water."

So where is the non-polluting sulfide mining company that has done it "right?" I guess Duluth Metals could not find one.

In an ironic, oxymoron twist Canadian Duluth Metals decided to bring one of the polluting companies here — form a partnership as Twin Metals — then try to convince us it would be an environmental plus for Chilean Antofagasta to mine in Minnesota, near Ely.

"There's a perfect example of a company [Antofagasta] who's currently mining copper the old way, strongly interested in investing in mining and processing copper the more, new, modern, environmentally responsible way," announced Ongaro, MiningMinnesota's executive director.

I have a gold mine to sell to anyone who buys that line. 

Antofagasta is part of the Luksic Group, owned by one of the wealthiest and most powerful families in Chile, and has long had the means to mine the "environmentally responsible way." They did the exact opposite in Chile.

According to Oxfam America, "In the arid north of the country [Chile}, where the government has prioritized copper mining, farmers and copper mines struggle to co-exist. Both need water, but the major copper mines, with support from the government and plenty of capital, are buying up the water rights. Farmers, many poor and without powerful friends in the government, are seeing their rivers and streams dry up — or worse, become so polluted they can't use the water. …  In 2004, the 2,000 residents of Caimanes, a remote town in Chile's IV Region, faced an additional challenge: a massive tailings dam [Antofagasta's] Pelambres Mining Company built on their doorstep. The dam, which collects waste rock from dissolved copper, would allow the Los Pelambres mine to continue operating for an additional 28 years. And the new tailings dam, when full, will hold 1.7 billion tons of waste. … In 2007 a local court in the nearby city of Los Vilos ordered that the mine company halt construction of the tailings dam. … The Los Pelambres mine company appealed the 2007 court order, and the decision put responsibility on a government water commission. This commission… allowed construction to continue. In 2008 Chile's supreme court ruled that the right to water for the farmers affected by the tailings dam was being violated…"

The ruling came too late, the tailings dam was essentially completed and water supplies irrevocably damaged.

In 2007 the Santiago Times reported: "The Region IV Regional Environmental Commission (COREMA) recently penalized [Antofagasta's] Los Pelambres mine with a fine of US$100,000 for its two most recent toxic spills into the Cuncumén River. The spills, which occurred Oct. 26 and Aug. 3, resulted in 5,307,000 liters of water showing higher than normal levels of sulfates and molybdenum, mining waste matter that is toxic to the region's flora and fauna."

Fines mean little to wealthy companies such as Antofagasta — fines are factored in as part of doing business. Unless Minnesota is willing to close down a mine that pollutes, which is doubtful since we currently have polluting taconite mines operating without closure, we can count on proposed sulfide mines contaminating our waters. As one Chilean put it, referring to Antofagasta's Los Pelambres mine, "Large fines have already been handed out. But, the truth is that fines do not really hurt big business owners. What we need is to have this mine closed...the damage has already been done." ("Patagonia Under Siege")

Antofagasta's Los Pelambres case "provides an example … of how responsible companies should not operate," Oxfam America stated.

Why would the people of Minnesota entrust our waters to Antofagasta — or to Duluth Metals, who brought Antofagasta here as a partner? Is it, as in Chile, "with support from the government and plenty of capital" a sell-out of our waters? Do Minnesotans need to wait until "the damage has already been done" becomes our waters epitaph?

Or do we seek a sulfide mining "prove-it-first" law, similar to Wisconsin's "mining moratorium" law? Trust is earned. Proof is protection.

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