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Hoyt Lakes land-sale plan erupting into clash of titans

Cross-section of the NorthMet mining deposit
Courtesy of Polymet Mining
Cross-section of the NorthMet mining deposit.

A plan by Sen. Amy Klobuchar to quietly and quickly push legislation allowing the sale of federal land near Hoyt Lakes, Minn., to a Canadian company to expedite its plans to mine for copper, nickel and other metals is erupting into a high-stakes controversy that could rival the gaping open pit that the land sale would bring. 
 
"This is just plain bad public policy," said Brian Pasko of the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness. Pasko is leading a team of local and national environmental groups that are hurriedly organizing to go all out to defeat Klobuchar's plan.   

 
The bill by Klobuchar and a House companion by another Minnesota DFLer, Rep. James Oberstar of Chisholm, would allow the sale of 6,700 acres of U.S. Forest Service land to Vancouver-based PolyMet Mining Corp., a move that would circumvent a more transparent — and time-consuming — land-exchange process.

Both sides see the fight, which will begin in earnest when Congress convenes early in September, as critical. 
 
Mine seen as economic boost to area
PolyMet needs the land to keep plans moving to begin mining operations as soon as it receives state permits, possibly early next year. The company says hundreds of construction jobs and 400 permanent jobs would come with the $380 million mine, something that's seen as giving a boost to a Northeast Minnesota economy wracked by a downturn in logging and, even, a historic falloff in iron-mining jobs.  
 
Environmental advocates worry about the potential for deadly sulfides from the mines, something they say has been the unwanted stepchild of every similar mine in the world.

PolyMet is the first of several companies poised to begin mining operations in Minnesota, and so what happens with it is seen as a "template" for government decision-making to follow.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar
Sen. Amy Klobuchar

Because Klobuchar would seek to push her bill in an abbreviated congressional session in September, the likely strategy is to skip public hearings and attach it as an amendment to another bill that's expected to move.  One candidate is the Omnibus Lands Bill by Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., even though Bingaman has said he prefers no amendments. 
 
Public hearings not ruled out
Klobuchar spokesman Lee Sheehy said the senator has not ruled out public hearings.  He said the bill would authorize a land sale only after the state's environmental impact statement process is completed and all permits are received; Sheehy also said proceeds from the sale must be used to acquire other comparable lands to be added to the Superior National Forest. 
 
As is typical in Northeast Minnesota and other areas of mineralization, land ownership is severed between subsurface and surface. In this case, PolyMet owns the subsurface, where the minerals are, but federal ownership of the surface would prevent an open pit mine that PolyMet says is needed (other copper-nickel mines in the area are expected to be mostly underground). 
 
Pasko says the established procedure for resolving such issues is a land exchange in which the company would acquire comparable land elsewhere in the region and donate it to the Forest Service. But that would take two or more years to accomplish, which the company sees as adding unnecessarily to the three years and $15 million it's already spent on the environmental impact statement process (the long delayed environmental report is expected in late September).  
 
So it's political muscle time, once again pitting Iron Range DFLers and allied unions against other Democrats and a well-organized and well-funded environmental community that has lots of friends in Congress and among Twin Cities DFLers. The last time the political titans clashed in Washington was over legislation in the 1960s and 1970s that established the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, and political wounds from those celebrated fights are still being licked.

Sen. Norm Coleman
Sen. Norm Coleman

Both senators support bill
"You can't get elected to office up here if you're opposed to mining," said Ely outfitter Steve Paragis. Indeed, Republican Sen. Norm Coleman has signed onto Klobuchar's bill, and earlier his DFL rival in this fall's election, Al Franken, reportedly told the Mesabi Daily News of Virginia, Minn., that he wasn't seeking endorsement from the Sierra Club, long seen as a perpetual critic of most industrial activity that the Northeast region holds dear.  
 
Sheehy said that the Oberstar and Klobuchar land-sale legislation was drafted with the full support of Northeastern Minnesota politicians. That would include such heavyweights as state Sen. Tom Bakk of Cook, chair of the Senate Tax Committee, and House Majority Leader Tony Sertich of Chisholm.
 
PolyMet would operate the first of what is expected to be several large mines that would extract low quantities of copper, nickel, and other precious metals including cobalt, platinum, palladium and gold from rock deep below the surface along a narrow strip in what's called the "Duluth Complex" of St. Louis and Lake counties in Minnesota's Arrowhead region.   
 
Less than 1 percent of the mineralized areas contain metals of economic value, which means that 99 percent of the rock removed would be stored in tailings mounds. Unlike taconite tailings (by comparison, about 75 percent of rock removed for taconite is waste to be stored above ground), the waste from copper-nickel contains sulfides that combine with water and air to form sulfuric acid that's deadly to fish and other aquatic life. 
 
Sulfides come with the minerals
Minerals in the ore-bearing rock attach to sulfides, so to remove the minerals means the sulfides come along with it. 
 
Frank Ongaro, executive director of MiningMinnesota, a pro-mining group, said that 4 billion tons of ore lie in the Duluth Complex region, meaning that copper-nickel mining could be around for a very long time — and meaning also that massive quantities of sulfide rock would be piled  across the region posing broad environmental threats. 
 
Environmental advocates note that while mining companies would leave upon exhaustion of mining operations, the tailings would remain forever with sulfuric acid leaching into surface waterways. 
 
After PolyMet, the next likely mining operation would be by Spokane-based Franconia Minerals, whose planned underground mine at Birch Lake a few miles north and east is seen as employing nearly 600. 
 
Seen as threat to the watershed
But it's also seen as posing a threat to the watershed that drains into the BWCA, something that is especially worrisome to Pasko at Friends of the BWCA and to property owners on White Iron lake next to the BWCA that is fed by Birch Lake (PolyMet's operations are in the watershed that drains to Lake Superior via the St. Louis River).   
 
In fact, Pasko said, there are several copper-nickel exploratory drill holes within a quarter mile of the famous canoe wilderness. 
 
The watchword by mining advocates, environmental advocates, state regulatory officials and political leaders is to make certain that copper-nickel sulfide mining "is done right."
 
"If it cannot be done right it shouldn't be done at all," Bakk has said. 
 
The question that everyone involved will be debating is exactly what is meant by "doing it right"?   

Ron Way covers the environment and energy issues. He can be reached at rway [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (1)

When I was growing up, we expected that our elected officials were in power to provide a check and balance for corporations. We knew that companies, especially those based outside the U.S., were concerned about their short-term bottom line and would have little concern about "externalities," like clean water, wetlands, forests, endangered species and public lands. We trusted that our Senators, Representatives and agencies of the federal and state government would make sure that corporations played by the rules. Before a company took over public lands, they would have to find an equally beneficial replacement. Before a company dug the land open for a new mine, they would have to show that they could prevent acid mine drainage from destroying ground and surface waters. You get the idea.
Legislators jumping into the fray to create special favors for a foreign mining company so that it doesn't have to play by the rules is not a proper check and balance for corporate profit. It is always easier to jump on the bandwagon of money and privilege than to protect the public good. But we would call on our legislative leaders to take a more difficult and more responsible position. Stop pushing a legislative "fix" and hold PolyMet to the standards in law that protect Minnesota's lands, waters and long-term legacy.