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Political dispute intensifies over potential pollution from copper-nickel mining

A mine near Biwabik, circa 1900.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
A mine near Biwabik, circa 1900.

As the date nears for a long-anticipated release of perhaps the most important environmental document in Minnesota's mining history, political wrangling has stepped up over concerns about the effects of copper-nickel mining on ground and surface water in a region world famous for the quality of its forested lakes and streams. 
 
The latest flare-up grew out of a seemingly benign request by State Sen. Ellen Anderson, DFL-St. Paul, for an independent review of whether state laws and regulations are sufficient to ensure that a major new industry — potentially worth hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of jobs — will protect water from sulfides and other toxics brought up with every ounce of copper, nickel, palladium, gold and trace minerals buried in the ancient lava rock of Minnesota's Arrowhead.  

 
Anderson, who chairs the Senate Environment Finance Division, requested $150,000 from the "emerging issues account" of the Legislative Citizens Committee on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR) for a review of state laws with a report to be made to her committee and the House counterpart, chaired by Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis.

But while there was some initial support for Anderson's request by LCCMR members, the opposing response from Iron Range legislators was fast and, to Anderson, a bit more furious than she expected. State Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, said in a letter the day after Anderson made the study request that Anderson was attempting an "11th hour … end run around the process" for reviewing potential effects of the planned mining.   
 
Rukavina's position supported by Iron Range lawmakers
Rukavina made it clear in the letter and in an interview that Anderson's request should be denied. He's supported by all eight Iron Range legislators, all DFLers, who co-signed his letter or, in the case of Rep. Tony Sertich of Chisholm, sent a separate letter to LCCMR. 
 
"This is a policy issue and not something for citizens to decide," fumed Rukavina, a veteran legislator known for his acerbic wit and unswerving advocacy for economic development of the Iron Range.   
 
Rukavina believes that Minnesota's laws and environmental regulations will adequately protect against any potential damage from copper-nickel mining. But critics are less certain.    
 
"I'm a little surprised by the tone of this, and the suggestion that everything's fine," Anderson told the LCCMR at a recent meeting. "Given history of this kind of mining in other places, we don't want to have problems here."
 
That is central to concerns raised by environmental advocates and some residents in the area of the planned mines, who say that in every previous case of copper-nickel mining there have been problems, some costing states hundreds of millions of dollars to clean up after mining companies left.   
 
Wisconsin has banned sulfide mining
Neighboring Wisconsin has banned sulfide mining until it can be shown that the industry can safely operate anywhere in North America for at least 10 years. 
 
Metals in ore bodies like the vast Duluth Complex — which runs diagonally through the Arrowhead — form around sulfides that, when the ore is brought to the surface, can combine with air and water to form sulfuric acid, which is deadly to fish and other aquatic life.
 
A related problem is the massive quantity of rock that's removed to get to the metals. Less than a percent of the ore is mineralized, meaning that for every ton of mined metal there are 99 tons of waste rock containing small amounts of sulfides. The sulfides will remain in piles long after mines are exhausted and could leach into the ground and surface waters.  
 
The sheer size of the ore body gives scope to the potential future problem. MiningMinnesota, an advocacy group for the emerging "nonferrous" mining industry, estimates that 4 billion tons of precious metals are in the Duluth Complex, which would make it the largest such ore body in the United States and the fourth largest in the world. 
 
Up to 400 billion tons of waste rock
Fully developed, mining operations would result in some 300 to 400 billion tons of waste rock scattered across the mining region (some plans call for underground mining, which would reduce surface rock storage by about half).
 
"The more informed one gets about copper mining, the more one learns not to trust the industry and to fear the scale and persistence of its pollution," said Clyde Hanson of Lutsen, Minn., a co-chair of the Sierra Club's "Mining Without Harm" campaign.
 
Mining advocates, like Ernie Lehman of Franconia Minerals, agrees that the mining industry does not have a good track record. However, he says, there are new technologies in place to protect from the harmful effects of sulfides and, he adds, Minnesota has some of the world's toughest environmental rules in the world. 
 
"If it can't be done right in Minnesota," Lehman says, "It can't be done right anywhere." 
 
Which goes to Rukavina's point. 
 
Besides, Rukavina adds, he thinks metro-area legislators like Anderson and Wagenius should worry about effects like "all that development I see around the Twin Cities where there once were farm fields and now there's fast food places and big homes on three-acre lots with septic tanks — talk about a groundwater problem!"
 
What is 'doing it right'?
"Doing it right" is the watchword in the expanding debate over copper-nickel mining.
 
"If it can't be done right, it shouldn't be done at all," says the influential Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, one of the Iron Range legislators who signed on to Rukavina's letter.
 
But there's hardly agreement what "doing it right" means. 
 
To Anderson and Wagenius, it is ensuring that environmental laws and rules sufficiently protect water resources, and that mine land reclamation laws protect the state's financial interests for as long as the waste rock piles pose a threat — and that could be a very, very long time. 
 
Which is why Anderson wants the independent review of the laws.
 
To Rukavina and Bakk it means following existing Minnesota laws and environmental rules of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) and Department of Natural Resources (DNR) which, the mining advocates insist, are adequate to protect against present and future threats from mining. 
 
They say a review of laws isn't needed, and they cite statements by DNR and MPCA officials who, the legislators say, apparently agree with their view. Besides, says Rukavina, the current environmental impact statement (EIS) that's nearing completion is supposed to address any shortcomings in resource-protection laws.   
 
Watching the EIS
That's among the reasons so many are watching the EIS on the first mine to open, by Vancouver-based PolyMet, whose processing operation will be in the closed LTV Steel plant near Hoyt Lakes. The long-awaited draft EIS by DNR is now due sometime in November.   
 
A 45-day public comment period on the EIS, together with the preparation of the final document based on the comments, will occur when the Minnesota Legislature is in session. And it's there where the Iron Range clash with what they call "metro legislators" may burst more prominently onto the public stage. 
 
The controversy has elements present in the 1970s when then-Rep. Don Fraser of Minneapolis headed an effort for wilderness designation of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA), and he encountered bitter opposition from Iron Range DFLers. The wilderness was created, but the Rangers derailed Fraser's 1978 bid for the U.S. Senate.

PolyMet says hundreds of construction jobs and 400 permanent jobs would come with its $380 million mine, boosting a Northeast Minnesota economy wracked by a downturn in logging and a historic fall-off in iron mining jobs. The company says it hopes to begin mining operations within six months of the EIS release, but that may be optimistic. 
 
Challenges are expected
With so much at stake, challenges are likely both to the EIS and to the several state and federal environmental permits the company must get. 
 
A major issue will revolve around the financial assurance the mining companies will make to protect mine lands after the ore body is exhausted. 
 
As well, the company needs title to the very land it needs for its pit. The U.S. Forest Service owns the land and the needed land-transfer process could take up to two years. 
 
To shorten the time frame and to avoid added environmental review, PolyMet sought help from Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Norm Coleman, and Rep. James Oberstar, who introduced legislation to force a land sale. But their attempt was thwarted before Congress left town on Sept. 24, and another attempt won't occur until next year. Given strong opposition to the move by the Minneapolis-based Friends of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and a collection of other environmental advocates, passage of the amendment is by no means certain. 
 
"We are also pursuing a regular land transfer with the Forest Service," said LaTisha Gietzen, a Polymet vice president. Gietzen said that the long delays the company has encountered are "becoming frustrating," but that the company remains hopeful that its mine will open sometime next year. 
 
Several companies are in the queue
PolyMet and its investors aren't the only ones who are watching the EIS process unfolding at the DNR. A half-dozen other mining companies are in the queue to begin operations within several years, and the permitting process for PolyMet is seen as a template for those that follow.
 
Next up is likely Franconia Minerals of Spokane, Wash.; it's currently prospecting with test holes in the area of Birch Lake in the BWCA watershed (PolyMet's operations are in the Lake Superior watershed). Lehman says Franconia sees a $620 million underground operation, with 550 permanent jobs, to begin in 2011. 
 
In a mining operation, waste rock is removed and stored in massive piles over sealed liners and, later, covered to prevent any of the inevitable sulfuric acid from draining into surface or groundwaters. Metallic ore is sent to crushers with small quantities of copper, nickel, palladium platinum, cobalt and gold drawn out in a chemical flotation process, with waste "tailings" dumped into a large basin.
 
The remaining ore contains 15 percent metal that, along with its sulfides, is sent to an "autoclave" that adds pressure and heat (provided by sulfur in the ore) to produce nearly 100 percent metal, most of which is formed into 4-by-6-foot plates (powdered gold is bagged) for shipment to processors.  Residue from the autoclave is neutralized with lime; it becomes gypsum that will initially be put into landfills but may be further processed into wallboard for use in building construction.
 
It's seldom as neat as all that. 
 
Sometimes companies leave town — and cleanup costs
At a legislative hearing last January David Chambers, with the Center of Science in Public Participation http://www.csp2.org/ of Montana, told of cases where bankrupt companies in the boom-bust world of hard-rock mining left states with a very costly cleanup. One was the Summitville gold mine, whose mess cost Colorado more than $200 million to correct; the company paid only $4.5 million.    
    
Minnesota has special "nonferrous mining" rules that require companies to put upfront cash for reclamation and environmental protection and to annually review whether the amount is enough. The challenges are to make certain the financial commitment is binding, the cash is readily available in the event of a rapid shutdown or catastrophe, and the cash is enough to cover foreseeable events that, it turns out, are difficult to foresee.
 
PolyMet says it favors insurance, but critics say that in bankruptcy or contested cases insurance money is hard to get. Environmental advocates favor a "non-expiring letter of credit" they say is the most direct avenue to emergency cash, but it's still uncertain how much money should be put up. 
 
The LCCMR will meet in November to consider Anderson's request for the review of Minnesota's environmental laws and rules for nonferrous mining.  

Ron Way, a former reporter for several Midwest newspapers, covers the environment and energy issues. He can be reached at rway [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (6)

But: How many good jobs could Minnesota create if, instead of allowing the potential ruination of Northern Minnesota's natural beauty, clean water, wildlife habitat, et cetera, we established a large electronics recycling operation?

Workers could safely reclaim the copper, other precious metals and re-usable plastics that now too often end up being shipped by the boatload to Asian landfills, where Asian workers are made sick from the chemical/metal pollution in totally unregulated dumps.

If there is one thing we've learned from the economic swindle on Wall Street its, we have to go back to manufacturing and producing here in this country.

As long as our computer and cell phone usage grow, so will our need for these metals. The question should not be 'if' we mine but, 'how' and 'when' should we mine.

I can't believe with the industry technology and environmental laws/regulations today that we aren't able to mine these metals without destroying the environment forever.

We had mining companies remiss with coal mining accidents over the last 3 years. The technology may be present but one must remember the firast automobiles were electric powered over 100 years ago. Science and technology are only part of the formula. Senator Anderson is correct in wanting legislation that would protect public health. Iron Range legislators are too close to the horror of the results of the iron mining industry in terms of boom and bust cycles and people's daily economic lives to have perspective. The most exciting sight on visiting my Iron Range hime were the windmills on the ridge above the Virginia Mt . Iron Mintac mining area. Transition can be made but the suggested metal recovery business might be the better and more honestly safe plan. But in these times Minnesota seems to too easily to get in bed with many different devils. It's high risk and good for a few as was the current mortgage market but the rest of us go unrespected unrewarded and unpaid in the end.

I hope that this information is available through other media outlets and that the entire population gets the opportunity to have input.

Will we go the way of the rainforests?

Thank you for the clear presentation of the issues.

Just what we need!

Are we sure these GANG OF 8 aren't Republicans? I suggest they move off the range, and find something productive to do with their little lives than destroy the beauty.

And as a person who attends Mass regularly, I find it un-Christian to put peoples lives on the line for a few bucks.

We should be aware, too, that the current Supreme Court is VERY business friendly rather than being concerned with people and the environment.

And that huge corporations put profits first. Period. Like W.J. Grace in Libby, Montana, where hundreds of employees and family members have died or are dying from exposure to asbestos. A Missoula jury found the Grace executives entirely innocent of wrongdoing -- probably because the judge excluded all the evidence proving their knowledge of and complicity in the poisoning of an entire town because he found the evidence "too prejudicial to the defendants."

The Obama administration has now declared Libby a super-cleanup site with, I imagine, the cleanup to be paid by us taxpayers instead of the criminals who created it.

There's no reason this kind of thing can't happen in northern Minnesota (except that our judges would be more concerned with actual justice).