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Sulfide-mining doublespeak: Sulfide mining will not pollute -- just don't put that in writing!

ELY, Minn. — Mining company representatives and many northern Minnesota legislators have repeatedly said sulfide mining will not pollute our waters. A sulfide-mining bill recently introduced in the Senate (SF 845) and the House (HF 916) essentially puts their claim to the test. Mining representatives and northern legislators are incensed. 
 
The "Safe Mines to Protect Our Water" legislation, introduced by Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, and Sen. Jim Carlson, DFL-Eagan, puts in writing what sulfide-mining proponents have been saying. The difference is sulfide mining companies are now being held accountable for their rhetoric.
 
The bill states, "The commissioner shall not issue a permit to mine under this section to a nonferrous metallic mineral mining operation unless the applicant establishes that the mining conditions, activities, and practices will not require water treatment after the mine's closure or otherwise result in irreparable harm to significant scientific or environmental resources."

The ire this bill raised indicates that these companies know they cannot operate without damage. Otherwise they would just be relieved that Minnesota is not seeking a moratorium, such as the one Wisconsin passed after sulfide mining polluted its waters.
 
Financial assurance
Sec. 6. Subd.2 of the bill reads: "Amount of Financial Assurance. The commissioner shall require financial assurance satisfactory to the commissioner from an operator of a nonferrous metallic mineral mining operation. The amount shall be the estimated cost to the state for hiring a third party to perform reclamation activities, including closure and postclosure maintenance if operations cease, and corrective action as required by the commissioner if noncompliance with design and operating criteria in the permit to mine occurs."
 
A company that cannot back up its financial operation is a company that will not be able to financially handle a sulfide mining disaster either. The sulfide mining bill is making sure funds are there to protect our invaluable waters. This is responsible economic policy.
 
Rep. David Dill objected to the bill's requirement for financial assurances by referring to the housing market. "If you want to buy a $1 million house and you can afford a $100,000 house, you've got a moratorium against buying a $1 million house." (St. Paul Legal Ledger) Is Rep. Dill saying he supports the same logic that just got the banking and mortgage companies in trouble?
 
Bob Meier, assistant commissioner, Policy and Government Relations, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources said, "We strongly feel that the rules and procedures in place do what the author's (of the bill) want to have done." (The Timberjay). He did not mention the fact that any rule or procedure in Minnesota can be emasculated with a variance. Giving variances has been accepted policy for decades in Minnesota. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has numerous pollution variances in effect today, and the MDNR Land and Minerals Division has a history of not enforcing regulations.
 
It is not surprising then that "(Frank) Ongaro, executive director of MiningMinnesota, recently said the Legislature should stay out of the issue and allow state regulatory agencies, such as the Department of Natural Resources to enforce existing laws and rules."  (Duluth News Tribune)
 
A giant experiment
The Platsol process, being touted by sulfide mining companies as nonpolluting, is not what they claim either. First, it has never been used on such a large scale, so Minnesota is a giant experiment. Secondly, there is significant toxic residue from the process. Not having a smelter does not eliminate the pollution. It makes no difference to the water if sulfuric acid enters from the air or from the ground.
 
Not surprisingly, none of the mining representatives mention the air-pollution problems, or ash-disposal issues, that will occur in Minnesota from the immense amounts of electricity that will be generated to operate the proposed sulfide mines.
 
Sulfide mining companies will be competing with existing iron ore mines for electricity because there is not enough for both.
 
Where will the electricity come from? If the plan includes new power plants, Minnesota cannot meet air-emission standards now.
 
This month the Duluth Tribune gave a negative view of the sulfide mining bill. It said, "The sulfur content of the rock at the PolyMet site is 1 percent or lower. It's negligible, and not a concern, really."  I hope this assertion is merely a lack of research on the Tribune's part.
 
'Game of units'
Gary Glass, retired USEPA senior research chemist, has said, "The folks who talk about low sulfide ore content are using the 'game of units' to try to minimize the potential for impacts by the reactive component — sulfide expressed in percentages. … By expressing the concentration of sulfide as a percentage, by weight, in the ore or ore tailings, the values computed are made to be small, but in reality, they are not insignificant!"
 
The Tribune also forgot to mention that if you mine low sulfur ore you will have to mine much more of it to get a marketable product, thus producing an enormous amount of leaching waste.

PolyMet's waste would fill the Louisiana Superdome approximately every 200 days.
 
Sen. David Tomassoni said, "I have a very difficult time with anyone introducing bills in this economy that could potentially kill jobs, as opposed to producing jobs." (Mesabi Daily News)
 
Has Tomassoni thought about how many jobs sulfide mining could potentially kill in recreation and tourism related industries when our waters are polluted? When our drinking water is at risk? What will the cost be to the real estate business, property values, tax revenues, education financing, and our health? 
 
Sulfide mining, new to Minnesota, will pollute our lakes, rivers, and streams with sulfuric acid and heavy metals. Acid mine drainage facilitates conversion of mercury into methylmercury, "the most bioaccumulative in fish and wildlife, and most toxic form of mercury as governed by the fish advisory for human consumption." (Gary Glass)
 
Minnesota waters are already under fish advisories for human consumption. Minnesota has a chance of reversing that advisory with its recent push to lower mercury levels.
 
If Minnesota allows sulfide mining to pollute our waters with acid drainage we can forget about northeastern Minnesota's watersheds ever getting out from under the fish consumption advisory. We can start worrying about whether those water bodies can sustain aquatic life.
   
The Complete Preliminary Draft Environmental Impact Statement (CPDEIS) for PolyMet shows the proposed mine will leach massively. And PolyMet is only the first of many sulfide mining operations intending to mine in Minnesota.
 
Too valuable to put at risk
Times are tough. Jobs are scarce. Water is scarce too. "Only three-tenths of one percent of the water on the planet is suitable for human use." (National Geographic) Minnesota's abundant water is too valuable to put at risk.  The bill is not anti-jobs. It is not anti-mines. The bill is pro-water. Any mining company that can mine without polluting our water can mine in Minnesota.
 
Rep. Tom Rukavina recently echoed an opinion both Frank Ongaro (MiningMinnesota) and LaTisha Gietzen (PolyMet) have also expressed numerous times when he said, "Are you going to mine them (the minerals) in the Amazon where there's no restrictions and just turn your head and pretend you're not polluting the world?" (The Associated Press)
 
Their rationale would be valid except for one important fact: The mining companies are wholly responsible for how they mine around the world. These companies will not change unless we demand they change.
 
Minnesota can choose to have a bill unequivocally saying sulfide mines will not pollute our waters. Or Minnesota can take the mining companies' word for it, in spite of the evidence to the contrary. We may be Minnesota nice. We are not Minnesota stupid.
 
It is easy to delude ourselves
Have northern Minnesota legislators convinced themselves that our waters will be fine because they want jobs and money for the region at any cost?
 
In the article "Copper Controversy" from the St. Paul Legal Ledger, three legislators made comments that made me wonder.
 
"It's interesting that the folks that are authoring that bill don't live up there." (Rep. David  Dill)
 
"Why would we knowingly and willingly risk our own water?"  (Rep. Tom Anzelc)
 
"I live there; the last thing I want is to do something that has long term impacts to the water quality for my kids or grandkids." (Sen. Tom Bakk)
 
There is no reason to believe these legislators are not sincere, but the facts about present day sulfide mining are there for anyone willing to look. So why is a bill to protect our waters not coming from northern Minnesota legislators? Why are they risking our water by not supporting this bill? Why are they promoting something that has long-term impacts to the water quality for our children?

Remind them that this bill is protecting our clean water legacy. 
 
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.

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Comments (2)

On these pages another article appears about the CCC. Maybe this sort of effort is needed to bring employment to the Range rather then another Earth scorching policy. Iron Range legislators have sold out their own resources and the health of the norhter ncitizens before. What is the reason that only the iron mining industry is exempt from needing by law to rebuilt their strip mining activities ? This entire thing is an environmental horror show in the making. Maybe the Coen brothers can bring their talents to illuminating this desecration.

Two points:
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First, water quality in No. MN IS a serious problem, as reflected in the recommended limits on the consumption of fish from MN lakes. If you don't believe it, use the public information resources of two of the state's departments:

For the MN Dept. of Health advisory on consumption of Minnesota caught fish, see http://www.health.state.mn.us/divs/eh/fish/eating/safeeating.html

For specific lakes, use the DNR's lookup, which includes a column for consumption advisories: http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/lakefind/index.html

You might be surprised at what you see there.
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Second, I don't see anything in the language regarding "financial assurance" which would prevent the mining companies from essentially acquiring some kind of financial instrument which protects against the risk of reclamation costs in return for a premium paid. Such an instrument would have to be acceptable to the state, of course. I.e., it would have to be enforcable. They don't have to put up the literal cash for reclamation - the bill requires them to give an adequate financial assurance. It might not take the form of an insurance policy, but it would have to have a similar effect.

If those costs are highly unlikely, as the proponents claim, the "premium" will be modest. If such an instrument is highly expensive, then we could reasonably conclude that the risk is greater than the proponents would have us believe. Maybe they already know something we don't yet know.

I understand the legislators who prize those new jobs in the northern economy. Jobs are needed. But frankly, I find no credibility in their position that we should insist on no PRACTICAL assurances that reclamation has been funded if needed, and instead accept the verbal assurances of the industry.

The jobs will last for a limited period of time, and their benefit during that time is significant. But after that benefit has elapsed, we don't want to be left with a deteriorated water quality that may last for a very, very long time.