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A woman's perspective on the PolyMet draft environmental impact statement

CHISHOLM, Minn. — I've spent my life on the Iron Range, caught in its mix of ethnic cultures, blue-collar hard-working ethics, and rural small-town living. The summer after I retired from teaching, I attended the scoping hearing for PolyMet, Inc., a proposed Canadian copper nickel mine near Hoyt Lakes. I came home with a 200-page scoping document and an emerging awareness of how the landscape of the Iron Range is a byproduct of a century of mining.

The thought of turning the Arrowhead Region of Minnesota into a sulfide-mining district jarred open my heart, along with my mind. Mining destroys the land, changes the landscape by creating mountains of waste rock, pollutes waterways, and generates a boom/bust type of economy. Mining does this, whether it's in my backyard or yours.

After four years of reading through technical documents regarding the PolyMet mine, my mind rebels. There is no way to prove whether PolyMet will or will not pollute our environment. The figures come from Barr Engineering, and the fact of the matter is that none of us has access to Barr Engineering's software. There is no way to prove that any kind of computer modeling will hold up in the real environment.

Technology and trust
The entire PolyMet draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) is based upon technology and a trust in technology. My female mind rebels. It rebels at the thought of blasting and crushing tons of rock to extract pounds, or even ounces, of metals. It rebels at the whole size and scope of the project — at the thought of acid mine drainage contaminating our water for generations to come, into perpetuity.

My female mind asks, how will women benefit from this mining project? How many women would actually work in this kind of mine, or receive associated living wages?  How many women would instead be given minimum wage spin-off jobs — in restaurants, fast-food chains, gas stations, grocery stores? Is mining helping or hindering our local communities? And where exactly do the majority of mining company profits go?

When the mining economy slumps, as is happening on the Iron Range right now, and domestic abuse increases, who receives the brunt of that abuse? Women and children. When electronic equipment is sent to foreign countries for the recycling of these metals, who are assigned these toxic pennies-a-day jobs? Women and children.

Who will bear the children who will have no access to future jobs because mining has destroyed the land for other opportunities? How many of us are living here now because we value the natural setting around us?  Do we value that environment enough to want to save it? I believe it's time for women to stand up and say, "Enough."

A lifestyle based on extravagance and waste
The mining companies say we need these metals to maintain our lifestyles. The truth is that the low-grade, semi-processed metals of the Arrowhead region would be sent to Ontario for final smelting. Through PolyMet's agreement with Glencore, these metals would then be sold on the world market. The United States would be competing with China to buy our own precious metals back.
     
In global terms, my female mind does not allow me to acquiesce in a consumer lifestyle based on extravagance and waste. Who buys the large trucks, boats and recreational vehicles that demand their share of these metals?  I would say it's the men, while the women and children go along for the ride. Can we justify this kind of lifestyle when there are men, women and children in some countries without access to such basics as running water or sanitary facilities?

In the U.S. economy, large appliances are currently designed to last for an average of seven years. How does planned obsolescence of stoves, refrigerators and washing machines affect women, children, and household budgets? Who benefits most from this kind of economy?  Does it make sense to use finite resources and dwindling energy supplies in such an inefficient way?

Likewise, do we really need a flat screen TV in every room (and vehicle)?  Do we really want the TV media raising our children?  Do computers make our lives easier or more complicated — and how healthy is it to spend hours in front of a TV or computer? Will hybrid or electric cars reduce traffic jams and accidents? Do we need to live in mega-houses and then hire other women at minimum wage to clean them?
  
My female mind rebels when government and industry rush to create a renewable future that is based on using nonrenewable metals such as copper, nickel and platinum. Electric car batteries use lithium, one of the rarest metals on earth. We are simply exchanging an economy based on oil and coal for one based on the mining of expensive rare and low-grade metals. 

Look at the real impacts
The PolyMet mining proposal would not survive scrutiny from logic that takes into account the amount of energy and resources required to mine over 99 percent waste. Women's thinking does not allow charts, graphs, maps, and polygons representing waste rock piles to replace the real impacts that mining has on the environment. Women's thinking does not accept statistics that in turn allow our water to be polluted to some minimal level.  Those statistics, when taken in combination rather than individually, mean that our drinking water may not be safe for our children's bodies.

Women's thinking is not inferior to men's; instead, instead it provides an alternative view that is needed to bring balance to decision-making. Often when women enter the competitive corporate or political world, they succumb to the group thinking that surrounds them. Women thus lose their feminine perspective. By the same token, when men balance analytical thinking with the holistic side of reasoning, focused creative solutions are the result. With the huge problems facing our society today, including a shifting economy and global warming, the male-female balance is imperative. We need to stop and think about how short-term decisions are affecting the long-term future.

It's time for women to make our voices heard, and now is the time to say, "Enough."

Public comment on the PolyMet/NorthMet DEIS will end at 4:30 p.m. on Feb. 3, 2010. Hearings will be held at Memorial Gymnasium in Aurora, Minn., on Dec. 9 and the Schwan Center/National Sports Center in Blaine on Dec. 10.  Open house will start at 5 p.m., with meetings at 7.

The PolyMet project needs to be put back into its box so that we can close the lid on its Pandora's list of problems. The Arrowhead region of northeast Minnesota exemplifies the balance of nature that we need to maintain — for ourselves in a changing world, for the children of the future.

Elanne Palcich of Chisholm, Minn., is a retired teacher.

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Comments (8)

Having spent the last three decades following the "Green" movement, and nearly that much time studying metal mining techniques, I have come to the conclusion that most people on both sides of relevant issues-such as whether to mine or not-stay too close to their philosophies to engender anything other than endless argument.The primary purpose of debate is finding a way forward to workable solutions.
There is clear data supporting the idea that strip mining is a filthy business that leaves behind "eternal" scars on the land. This data is derived from the past behaviour of mining companies around the world, often done in places lacking serious environmental laws.
On the other hand is a body of people who regard themselves as stewards of the environment. The radical fringe (on either side) spoil the debate and render it meaningless.
Whether one views the world as an industrialist or a conservationist, some things are quite clear. One, we have built trade into a global network, so there is no avoiding trans-border business. I should like to remind everyone that political borders are capricious things, artificially placed on the landscape for the purpose of separating "ours" from "theirs." People, on the other hand, are generally the same everywhere. We all like a warm house, decent plumbing, a good meal and so on. And whoever you might be, unless you really want to go back to living in rawhide enclosures and following seasonal migrations, expect to be able to buy food, copper pipes, plastic sheeting and other staples of our modern life.
Presently, the US mines very little base metal - most of it comes from places that still violate everything from good environmental stewardship to child labor laws. Our cars, heat pumps, toasters and fishing weights, to name a very few items, all use base metals. We are doing the same thing to acquire these items that we are doing with oil: sending our money to places that have demonstrated their unsuitability to receive it time and again. If we and the Europeans didn't send 7 trillion dollars a year to the Saudis and their neighbors, we wouldn't have the global human catastrophe on our hands that we currently do.
I maintain that we must find ways to provide for ourselves, and we must also produce things that can be sold abroad to gain money for our communities. Its like shopping at Wal-Mart or paying rent - once you spend that cash, it leaves your community and goes abroad. To the extent that you can spend your money locally, you retain wealth in your own community-even if it costs a little more to do it, it is far better for your own hometown. When you can "export" goods from your community, all the cash generated lifts the standard of living.
Polymet offers communities in the Iron Range just such an opportunity. The spinoff jobs are not just for waitresses and garage - shops. Basic industry produces jobs across nearly every segment of a community. These include jobs for teachers, engineers, administrators, small merchant trade, and others. This is so endemic to basic industry that the US Census Bureau documents it. The effect is a statistical certainty. Mines provide good jobs for people who would rather drive bulldozers than study physics. This is a good thing-you don't have social revolutions and pandemic drug abuse in places with stable and good-paying jobs.
Developing sustainable ways to harvest makes a good platform for all concerned. While you may doubt some engineering company's software, the fact is that the marketplace removes false and misleading players by virtue of basic macroeconomic law. If you don't provide good product or service, you go broke. We have made tremendous inroads in the last century in changing the way we harvest and recycle any number of resources-mining not the least. I have seen three massive phosphate mines reclaimed in the last decade, and I defy anyone to show that they are still polluting. In fact, they are each tremendous producers of habitat and seafood in their estuaries today. Reclamation itself is a large job-producer.
When George Perkins Marsh decried the setting of rivers on fire in 1865, his was the first voice raised for environmental awareness in over a thousand years. The Monongahela River had caught fire several times in his lifetime. By 1990, tree farms and recycling had become bureaucratic and corporate mandates. The recycling business employs hundreds of thousands of people. We've actually come a long way, especially given how hard-headed our species is. Your community has a golden opportunity to raise the bar on how to extract needed resources in a place that employs adults and takes part in legitimate business enterprise. It isn't a question of whether to mine or not - its a question of whether your community can rise to the challenge of showing the rest of the world how to do it right.

My thanks to author for the thoughtful and eloquent article. She captured the essence of the issue better than anything I have read to date.

Mr. Hornstein's comments make a few good points about meeting the demands of our lifestyle choices. We must face the cause and effect relationships inherent in our consumption of manufactured goods and the resources that go into them. That reflection however, taken to any significant depth, reveals some striking and unavoidable facts.

Our consumption of material goods breaks down into "renewable" (things that grow back) and non-renewable (such as materials mined) resources. Statistics show that our use of basic renewable resources passed what the planet can replace sustainably in the 1980's. The extractive industries such as mining or oil production finished off the high grade ores and deposits long ago and are now digging and drilling deeper and deeper to keep up. We are now using low grade, bottom of the barrel, resources such as tar sands, taconite and low grade sulfide rock ores simply because we've almost run out of the high grade, easy to get deposits. We are tearing up the kitchen floor to get enough food crumbs to make soup.

There are over 6.5 billion humans on the planet and at current growth rates it is expected there will be 9 billion of us by 2050.

It wasn't until the last century that continuous economic growth became the openly stated primary government policy of most countries. Human population has doubled since then and all of those 6.5 billion people want the extravagant lifestyle they see us having. The math doesn't work now and it certainly won't work for 9 billion of us.

Claiming that free market forces will sort this all out is downright laughable after our recent experience with the free market exposed for what it really is.

Our only hope is to find other ways to define success and growth besides increased extraction and consumption of a shrinking pool of natural resources. The resource base will not support continued growth and the environmental sinks, (the air, land and water), cannot absorb and process the waste products and pollution from our current activities let alone a constantly growing amount.

We need good lasting jobs and stable communities. None of the extractive industries have ever provided that for the communities they impact. At least not for long after they get the last of what they want. The way to avoid the next bust may well be to avoid the next boom.

Posting author comment from Elanne Palcich:

I would like to clarify a few of my points in response to Mr. Hornstein’s comments.

First, this is not a U.S. mine. Canadian companies are seeking to extract our metals and sell them on the global market.

Second, these metals are very low grade — ess than ½% copper, 1/10th% nickel, and ounces per ton of platinum, palladium, and gold. What is this going to contribute to the world’s metal needs in proportion to the amount of energy used to create over 99% waste rock?

Third, PolyMet acknowledges that acid mine drainage from its mine would affect the ground water. However, according to Barr Engineering statistics in the DEIS, all pollution from the mine would fall within acceptable limits.

We know that PolyMet would pollute our environment. We just don’t know how much. Nor do we know the cumulative or synergistic effects.

Fourth, sulfuric acid is formed when sulfur from the ores reacts with both water and oxygen. So if you really want to experiment with new technology that prevents acid mine drainage from forming, this experimental mine should be located in a dry environment, not in the watersheds of northern Minnesota.

Fifth, PolyMet’s open-pit strip mine would be located within 6,700 acres of Superior National Forest, including 1,000 acres of wetlands. According to European and Russian studies, the preservation of wetlands helps mitigate climate change on a local level. Wetlands sequester carbon which is released when those wetlands are destroyed.

Sixth, mineland reclamation doesn’t restore the original ecosystem. It’s definitely good to clean up polluting mine sites, but how exactly do you reclaim tons of waste rock and tailings? The Arrowhead Region is home to some of the most scenic areas of northeast Minnesota. The permitting of one sulfide mine opens the door for additional mines to feed into the PolyMet hydromet — expanding the mining district to the borders of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Seventh, the Iron Range that I live in is home to pandemic drug abuse and high rates of alcoholism. This is juxtaposed next to iron mining jobs. So I simply will not buy the idea that mining creates a stable social environment. Mining continues to use bigger and bigger equipment, hiring fewer and fewer workers. Mining jobs go through boom and bust cycles, greatly destabilizing the local economy.

Eighth, Mr. Hornstein missed the main point of my commentary. The male industrial model is not working. We are in the middle of a global economic downturn and global climate change, and our solutions for the future need to come from a new perspective.

I appreciate the opportunity for this dialogue.

Elanne Palcich

Thanks Elanne for your exceptionally sexist and myopic view on Iron Range economics and our communities.

The positive impacts of the mining industry on the quality of life of both Men and Women in Northern Minnesota are without question.

Untold tens of thousands of familys for over a century have benefitted from the impacts of the mining industry. Men, Women, Girls and Boys recieved high quality healthcare, went to college and returned to make the Iron Range an incredible place to raise a family. They also returned home to positively impact how mining is done.

We're under no illusion about mining and it's impact on the environment. The testimony of a century of mine dumps and open pits along the length of the Iron Range can't be ignored. And we know full well the responsibility we all have to ensure the impact of this mining be as minimal as posssible.

The mining industry of today is not the mining industry of our Fathers and Grandfathers. Our children have also seen this and have been the drivers of a new mining mindset regarding the environment. They are technology driven, creating new control methods our fathers never concieved of AND holding our feet to the fire regarding our need to be stewards of the land.

Elanne we could all shrink into the woodwork living sustainably without electricity in mud huts, burning our animals biowaste, eating what we can grow or grows naturally and let the chips fall were they may in means of quality of living OR we can live sustainably by being wise stewards of our existing resources and have a high quality of life.

This is a mans prospective; wanting our families to have the highest quaility of life we possibly can without destroying the very life we live. We balance this in life without any thought to "It's a mans world and damn the women and kids!"

Your sexism is plain wrong Elanne, if it were a man who said what you said, you'd be up in arms and rightfully so. But Mining is a quality of life issue for more then just us men. It a quality of life issue for our region, state and nation!

I could go on and on but I made my point.

Mike Geisdorf
Aurora Mn

Elanne- I can't believe your article was published. What a distorted view point you have! People like you are responsible for stopping progress in this country. Polymet and the state of MN have spent 4 years and over 20 million Dollars putting the DEIS document together and explain to people like you the impacts on the environment and all you have to say is that women are mistreated. WOW.

The fact of the matter is that Polymet will create numerous jobs in your part of the state and will help the economy greatly and make lives better without destroying the environment as you claim.

A fascinating op-ed piece.

I work in the engineering field in mine development, and our environmental group is composed predominantly of women. They believe strongly in our (global) society's need for minerals and metals, and they actively and positively contribute to formulating and applying effective strategies to ensure the extraction takes place while keeping any disturbances to the environment within legislated tolerances.

What is fascinating is that my female colleagues are using, uh, their 'female minds'. Presumably, these minds are anatomically identical to that of the author.

So what gives? Are their 'female minds' somehow defective, or lesser developed, or compromised in some way, or just generally inferior to the author's, which leads them to willingly work *for* the development of environmentally compliant mining operations?

What this must mean, and what the author has failed to identify, then, is that there are actually *two* classes of 'female minds': presumably, those who 'get it', like the author, and those who don't, like my colleagues.

I will alert my colleagues of their cognitive deficiency at once.

Mr. Swiniarski, aside from the gender comments that you noted. Would you be able to address some of the major claims and or points that the author makes in her commentary? Perhaps this would allow for a more focused conversation regarding the environmental concerns of Ms. Palcich's.

Using your background in engineering it would certainly add an industry/professional take on the subject matter and less of an emotional response.

Who are these people?

You have to wonder who is attacking the writer of this essay. They turn out to be 75% outstate and at least 50% in the business. This is a bit for a reporter to chase down.
Now the thing is in the last stages. Ans still there is no mechanism to stop it. I assume no matter what anyone or everyone says it will be the end of nature for this bit of earth.
What say you Mr. Dayton?