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In Minnesota, our wealth is our water — so keep questioning sulfide mining

Minnesota legislators have been eagerly promoting sulfide mining. They repeat mining-company statements and projections without question.

Minnesota legislators have been eagerly promoting sulfide mining. They repeat mining-company statements and projections without question. Many of them suppress, even condemn, anyone who is more cautious. But Minnesotans need to keep asking questions about sulfide mining.

The situation is reminiscent of the banking, mortgage, and auto-industry problems we are dealing with today. It was a lack of foresight and an opposition to scrutiny that set the stage for the current bailouts. Those who tried to point out the risks were ignored.  

So here are a few of my questions, beginning with: Will Minnesota’s future include bailing out the sulfide mining industry with millions of dollars of cleanup costs?

Why, what and where
Why did Rep. Jim Oberstar and Sen. Amy Klobuchar introduce the Superior National Forest Adjustment Land Act, which mandates the sale of 6,700 acres of federal land directly to PolyMet without any environmental review? Is it because strip mining could not legally be allowed on the Forest Service land? What is the Forest Service’s responsibility when clearly the land was not to be used for strip mining? 

Where is the line drawn between promoting an industry and excluding the development of competing industries? In a 2001 State Master Agreement it was stated, “… the DNR will meet with Cliffs Erie and Rainy River Energy Corporation to discuss the status of non-ferrous metallic mining projects in this area and ways to mitigate any development plans that would interfere with non-ferrous metallic minerals mining.”

Has disproportionate funding and support been given to mining companies by organizations, agencies, and elected officials charged with promoting the economic diversity essential to building a strong economy in northern Minnesota?

A question of ethics
Ethical assurances are as important as financial assurances. Can we entrust our waters to mining companies that have been sued for pollution in other states, or involved in abuses in other countries?

Teck Cominco was sued by the State of Washington for polluting the Columbia River. Teck Cominco was sued for pollution at the Red Dog Mine in Alaska, where the heavy metal contamination is some of the highest in the nation. Teck is on a Canadian list of “top 10” worst mining companies. In Minnesota Teck Cominco has a one-time “back in” with its venture partner Franconia Minerals, and is doing exploratory mining on its own leased land.  Can we afford to believe a company with its record will care about our waters?

Kennecott is a wholly owned subsidiary of Rio Tinto. Norway’s state-run pension fund recently divested its $853 million Rio Tinto stake to protest Rio Tinto’s mining ethics. Why is Minnesota welcoming it?

Hold companies accountable
Mining representatives say we have an obligation to mine in Minnesota rather than in a place that has poor regulations. However, if mining companies believe in “doing it right,” as they claim, why not do so regardless of where they mine or what kind of regulations exist? The decision is theirs. The obligation is theirs.

Mining representatives have said sulfide mining is safe in Minnesota because we have strong laws. But is any law that is not adhered to, or enforced, a strong law?

The following is a quote from a 1988 MPCA, Division of Water Quality, memo to the MDNR Minerals Division: “We are becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the DNR’s apparent role as advisor and advocate on behalf of the company in relation to MPCA and our programs. While we understand and have no problem with the DNR’s statutory responsibilities to promote mineral development we wish to make a distinction between that role and one of acting as an advocate on behalf of LTV Steel regarding the latter’s dealings with MPCA. … Moreover, MPCA has exercised considerable forbearance over the past 15 years in delaying enforcement action, while waiting for LTV to propose mitigation methods for the Dunka problem.”

In 2008, there is still a variance in place for Dunka.

State agencies allow mining companies to pollute by granting variances. Is a regulation that can have a variance really a regulation at all?

State agencies allow dilution as a means to meet pollution standards for our waters. Is a standard that has been met using dilution legitimate?

Can we entrust our waters to agencies that have not protected them?

Within these agencies there are people who are also deeply concerned about sulfide mining, but it is difficult for them. The more questions we ask, the more public support they will have for their positions.

The issue of leaching
Historically and consistently, sulfide mines have polluted surrounding waters. New mines can take years before leaching shows. By then the damage is done.

Sulfide mining will leave billions of tons of waste rock (99 percent is waste), whose toxic leaching will be treated with old technology, including liners that can and do fail. According to the mining industry’s own experts, all liners eventually leak.

At the Red Dog mine in Alaska, part of the pollution problem came from Teck Cominco’s severely contaminated haul road. Will Teck Cominco be transporting payloads differently in Minnesota?

Duluth Metals is planning to use the Dunka mine site again as a depository for millions of tons of waste rock. How is that feasible? In 1986 the Dunka River was in danger of migrating into the pit. The following is from an MPCA memo: “Ultimately river could migrate into pit … Erie considering a ‘position statement’ on Dunka R. options … senses that co. feels diversion is most desirable option … might involve Erie having to buy out 2 resorts nr mouth of Dunka R…. Walleye spawning migration in river would probably be eliminated.” (MPCA memo) 

Today the Dunka pit is in danger of overflowing. “Eventually the mine pit may fill to the point where an artificial discharge point may need to be established to prevent inundation of diversion ditches or stockpiles … will likely be constructed at the north end of the pit and discharge to Flamingo Creek or Birch Lake … projected to take place at some time subsequent to the expiration of this reissued permit.” (2005 MPCA permit)

Franconia Minerals is planning a sulfide mine beneath Birch Lake. Franconia is planning an underground and an open-pit sulfide mine adjacent to the Kawishiwi River. Are we willing to trade the Kawishiwi River landscape for an open-pit acid mine?  The Kawishiwi River is a part of the Rainy River Watershed, which includes the BWCAW and Voyageurs National Park.

What are the ramifications? Bedrock fracturing? Structural failure? Leaching? Migration? Site degradation? What risks are we taking with some of the most beautiful waterways in the state and in the nation? Those waterways are what make Minnesota a special place to live.

The minerals are not going anywhere. Why put our waters at risk before it is proven that this kind of mining, new to Minnesota, can be done safely? Do we even have regulations that will cover the hazards associated with this type of mining? Why have we not been able to clean up the numerous polluted mining sites we now have?

Different projections needed
We have projections from the mining companies of the money and jobs that sulfide mining will bring to the region. We need projections of the money and jobs that will be lost. What are the dollar figures for how much the local economy stands to lose from sulfide mining?

Permitting PolyMet would open the door to intensive sulfide mining in what is now essentially a lake district. What will happen to the recreation industry when lakes are damaged by acid mine drainage? What happens to the many businesses, large and small, that are connected to the recreation industry?

What happens if our drinking water is contaminated? Many people use lake water systems; acid mine drainage can migrate into water wells.

What about miners’ health? What about air quality and emissions? What are the health implications and costs to the state from sulfide mining?

Sulfide mining will leave limited options
Eventually, the mining companies will leave, with the landscape denuded, our waters needing perpetual treatment, and wetlands destroyed at a time when we need every wetland to offset global warming. 

Northern Minnesota has a strong mining heritage. Iron Rangers have a right to be proud of their contribution to our country. But that contribution came at a price. One effect of mining has been the corresponding removal of other employment options. When the minerals are gone, the mines close, and there is little reason for other businesses to locate in areas stripped of a landscape that draws people to a community. Mining is the only option, but without minerals that option no longer exists either.

Sulfide mining will not bring stability. The minerals are finite. When they are gone the mining areas will again be left struggling to find viable options. And this time our lakes will need perpetual treatment for acid and toxic heavy metals. Is this what we want for future generations? 

Economic considerations alone are not enough
Sulfide mining, as it exists today, is not safe. Minnesota could learn from the disasters that have occurred in other states and in other countries. Or are we required to have our own disaster? Why not wait until sulfide mining can be proven safe and done without damaging our waters?

If the answer is money, our legislators and agencies need to read Minnesota Statute 116D.04, Environmental Impact Statements, Subd. 6, Prohibitions: “No state action significantly affecting the quality of the environment shall be allowed, nor shall any permit for natural resources management and development be granted, where such action or permit has caused or is likely to cause pollution, impairment, or destruction of the air, water, land or other natural resources located within the state, so long as there is a feasible and prudent alternative consistent with the reasonable requirements of the public health, safety, and welfare and the state’s paramount concern for the protection of its air, water, land and other natural resources from pollution, impairment, or destruction. Economic considerations alone shall not justify such conduct.”

In 1997 our neighboring state of Wisconsin passed the “Mining Moratorium Law” (Act 171), which requires a mining company to provide examples of a sulfide mining operation in the U.S. or Canada that has not polluted the water with acid mine drainage or heavy metals. No sulfide mine has been permitted in Wisconsin since this law was passed.

Is this the place to experiment?
Our northern Minnesota legislators and those supporting sulfide mining do not seem to seriously consider the implications of sulfide mining and its effects on the waters of Minnesota, a state that is known for its “10,000 Lakes.” Our lakes, rivers, and streams define us. Will we show the rest of the world the protection of our waters comes first?

Asking questions is not about being against mining or jobs. It is about being for the lakes.

Rep. Tom Rukavina was mistaken when he said, “This is a policy issue and not something for citizens to decide.” Who has more right to decide than the citizens of Minnesota?

What we decide has far reaching implications. Three watersheds originate in this area. We have a national responsibility as well as a state responsibility to see that these watersheds are protected by promoting jobs that are safely compatible with our most valuable resource, our waters.

C.A. Arneson lives on a lake in the Ely area that is part of the White Iron Chain, which will be directly affected by whatever happens to the Kawishiwi River.

Want to add your voice?

If you’re interested in joining the discussion by writing a Community Voices article, email Susan Albright at salbright [at] minnpost [dot] com.