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In Minnesota, the price of metals is damage to our water

ELY, MINN. – PolyMet Mining Corp. told Minnesotans the new Platsol process makes sulfide mining safe.

PolyMet, whose NorthMet Project near Hoyt Lakes is in the development stages, has never volunteered an example of where its “new process” was used on the same scale as is planned for the NorthMet Project, in an environment as water intensive as Minnesota, without resulting in water contamination.

PolyMet told Minnesotans that the NorthMet draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) cost millions and would prove sulfide mining safe. The United States Environmental Protection Agency issued a damning DEIS report that does not prove NorthMet is a safe project. Indeed, my reading of it is that the project is a devastatingly unsafe one.

Unprecedented number of public comments
Minnesota citizens responded to the release of the DEIS with an unprecedented number of public comments, many contributed by disbelieving scientists and experts.

The most resounding issue of all is that of surface and groundwater contamination into perpetuity. Extensive groundwater tests were never done for NorthMet, and the most telling piece of a DEIS is what is not done.

Whenever critical information is left out or brushed over in a DEIS, there is a problem. With its water-intensive nature and fractured bedrock setting, with little or no protective overburden, northern Minnesota is not a feasible place for sulfide mining.

The exhaustive surface and groundwater testing that is still necessary for such a massive project, if done and done correctly, in all probability will show the impossibility of averting sulfide mining contamination of our waters.

The groundwater investigation at the former Finland Air Force Base in Minnesota – performed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Minnesota Pollution Control, and Harza Engineering – shows the level of effort that goes into a bona fide study. It also shows that there is not much remediation or cleanup possible, just damage control. Why was the FFAFS study not used as a resource in the NorthMet DEIS?

Rated as Environmentally Unsatisfactory (EU-3)
On Feb. 18, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released its report on the NorthMet Project.

“Based on our review of the DEIS, EPA has rated the DEIS as Environmentally Unsatisfactory – Inadequate, or EU-3. Environmentally Unsatisfactory (EU) indicates that our review has identified adverse environmental impacts that are of sufficient magnitude that EPA believes the proposed action must not proceed as proposed … This rating applies to the Proposed Action, the Mine Site Alternative, and the Tailings Basin Alternative … EPA has assigned the Inadequate (3) rating to the DEIS because EPA believes that the analyses of the hydrogeological profiles at both the mine and processing sites are inadequate to determine the full extent of impacts … EPA has determined that the project will result in unacceptable and long-term impacts to water quality …” (EPA, NorthMet Project, 25-page report)

It could be said that PolyMet flunked.

Your future is being decided
Ask yourselves why agencies in Minnesota would pass on such a flawed DEIS.
The agencies were inexorably advancing to the final EIS. Those who wrote comments in response to the NorthMet DEIS received the following email: “The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources will include your comments and respond to your comments in the Final Environmental Impact Statement.”

No mention of rewriting the incredibly flawed DEIS, as many citizens requested in their comments. No attempt to address many concerns raised by the EPA on Aug. 25, 2009, after the release of the Preliminary DEIS.

With its Feb. 18 report, the EPA corroborated citizen concerns and recommended a “revised/supplemental” DEIS be done.

The U.S. Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service, concurred with the EPA that the DEIS was seriously incomplete: “The anticipated environmental impacts of the proposed action are not fully and fairly addressed in the DEIS.”

Not working as intended
When the EPA released its report, The Duluth News Tribune bizarrely claimed the PolyMet review is “working as intended.” Frank Ongaro, director of MiningMinnesota, stated in the Star Tribune that the process “is working exactly the way it is supposed to work.”

Irrefutably the EPA report indicates the PolyMet review is not working as intended.

The Preliminary DEIS is the place to work out major problems. By the release of the Draft Environmental Impact Statement it is expected that severe flaws, such as those the EPA identified, would have been both identified and solved. If not, neither the process nor the project is working. A scathing EPA report is not part of a normal EIS process; it is a report of failure. Vital information was unavailable or withheld from the public when the DEIS was released; public comment was compromised.

If the issues raised by the EPA are not fully resolved in the EIS, it is time for the EPA to proceed with its statutory obligations under the Clean Water Act and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

Euphoric rhetoric and support
Prior to the release of the DEIS, based upon their euphoric rhetoric and support, the decision for sulfide mining had already been made by most northern Minnesota legislators, our senators and congressman, Gov. Tim Pawlenty, mining company representatives and proponents, the media, and our state agencies. NorthMet would have been permitted by now if it had been their call, complete with perpetual water contamination and treatment.

The precedent would have been set for proposed development of a sulfide-mining district in the midst of a northern Minnesota lake district that includes the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Rep. James Oberstar, Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Sen. Al Franken are still considering slipping legislation through to force the Forest Service to sell Superior National Forest land directly to PolyMet, thus circumventing the EIS as well as avoiding language in the deed that prohibits strip mining. It should be noted that this land-sale legislation would also set a precedent for the proposed mining operations on Superior National Forest lands closer to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness – lands that are covered by protective language in the 1978 BWCAW Act as long as those lands remain federal.
Financial assurances bill
Financial assurances should have been an integral part of the NorthMet DEIS, but were not. Minnesota legislators who have had the courage to introduce a financial assurance bill this year are doing so because adequate financial assurances are important. They are just not enough. No amount of financial assurances will clean up what cannot be cleaned up. 
Mining interests are vehemently lobbying against the financial assurances bill.
If the mining companies cannot pay the up-front millions, the companies usually must bond or insure for the possibility of clean-up costs. It is expensive. The companies that will insure or bond use actuarial tables to figure out the probability of having to pay for such cleanup, and the probability is almost 100 percent. Factor that probability into the existing surface and groundwater risk.

Why not ‘prove it first’ legislation?
With such an impossibly high risk factor, why is a financial assurance bill being introduced and not a “prove it first” bill on sulfide mining?
The prevailing belief is that a “prove it first” bill cannot be passed in the Minnesota House or Senate; nor would Oberstar, Klobuchar or Franken support one.  Last year’s bill, “Safe Mines to Protect Our Water,” could not even make it out of committee. The original bill did not say no to sulfide mining, just no to water treatment at closure. It is currently gathering dust at the Capitol.

Mining company lobbying was at a frenzied pitch last year – a huge red flag, considering sulfide mining interests have claimed all along there would be no water contamination. The EPA report on the NorthMet DEIS disproved that claim.

Learn from the past
In 1989 the Dunka Mine located adjacent to Birch Lake was “highly recommended” for inclusion on the EPA’s 304(L) most toxic list. The recommendation was never passed on to the EPA by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. When compared to the massive proposed sulfide mining projects, Dunka Mine is an anthill.

It is also a powerful warning of what happens when mining occurs in a sulfide bearing ore body in a wet environment.
Dunka is still polluting. It has been given variances and surrounding wetlands are soaking up heavy metals. Neither practice used to be allowed by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to mitigate mining contamination. Are variances and wetlands now being used because there is no other choice?

Minnesota already has a ‘sulfide mine’ it cannot clean up.

Protection of our waters is paramount
In the years leading up to the release of the DEIS, warnings were ignored. Attempts were made to marginalize individuals and thereby negate the legitimate concerns they raised. Minnesotans must not let the focus be taken away from our waters.

Minnesota’s water rich legacy is invaluable. To put it in jeopardy, by not recognizing the inevitability of surface and groundwater contamination is unconscionable. Minnesota deserves “prove it first” legislation similar to Wisconsin’s. Minnesotans have the right to know their waters are unequivocally protected.
There is great power in numbers. It is up to all Minnesotans to make the decision for our future.

This is a defining moment and a defining choice for Minnesota. If we do not choose our waters, “Land of 10,000 Lakes” will have a far different connotation.
We are on the edge. The tipping point can go either way. Minnesotans have the ability to decide which way.

C.A. Arneson lives on a lake in the Ely area.

Comments (18)

  1. Submitted by Christopher Loch on 03/04/2010 - 10:47 am.

    Excellent article. Thank you! I didn’t know we already had a sulfide mine mishap at Dunka. Very informative! Why wasn’t that considered? Really looks damning to the DNR. Either incompetent or being extremely and inappropriately biased in favor in mining.

    Also, thanks for putting the heat on Franken and Klobuchar. This jobs bogus argument does not cut it. Yes we need jobs, but ruining the lake based tourism industry by fouling the waters and killing the fish with a short lived private profit mine is not going to provide many and it will kill thousands of existing jobs in the lake based toursism industry. Get past the posturing Klobuchar and Franken! Political crap like that makes your constituents very angry. I don’t care which way the wind is blowing, we elected you to do the right thing for us, not for you.

    Call them folks! Call Klobuchar and Franken and let know in no uncertain terms that they need to stop supporting these un-Minnesotan *sulfide* mines and instead support iron mining and other existing and proven job generators. Let’em have it. They need to know they are failing big time.

    Thanks again for this excellent scientifically based and rational article.

  2. Submitted by Rolf Westgard on 03/04/2010 - 10:59 am.

    We are now into a contest between the EPA on one side and the MN DNR & US Corps of Engineers on the other. Opponents of the Polymet mine are making a big issue of the waters in the Boundary Waters, but the proposed mine area drains south via the Partridge and Embarrass Rivers to the St Louis River and Lake Superior, not north to the BWA.
    The 714 page Draft EIS is a draft but it contains much more data than the EPA blurb. The draft concludes about the 3 rivers in questiona s follows:

    “Even with these higher loadings and assuming no natural attenuation, the model results indicate that water quality standards for the Partridge River would be maintained for the eight constituents studied (i.e., antimony, arsenic, fluoride, cobalt, copper, nickel, vanadium, and sulfate) under all flow conditions and mine years modeled . Therefore, even using relatively conservative assumptions, the Proposed Action is not predicted to result in any exceedances of surface water quality standards for the Partridge River at the modeled locations.”

    You may even see a less biased article on the PolyMet Project in MinnPost one day.

  3. Submitted by Charles Holtman on 03/04/2010 - 01:46 pm.

    Mr Westgard:

    It is not enough that there will not be exceedances of water quality standards in the Partridge River. The law, I believe, also requires a “nondegradation” analysis that ensures discharges won’t cause the existing water quality to decline, if it presently is better than the standards. I have not read the 714-page document that you cite. Are the results of a nondegradation analysis discussed in there?

  4. Submitted by Rolf Westgard on 03/04/2010 - 03:32 pm.

    Mr Holtman, that is a very good question. I took another look at the EIS whose 714 pages I have either read or scanned. I didn’t not see any reference to non-degradation standards, only to the various complex “surface water standards”. That is also the term used for the Embarrass and St Louis Rivers in the EIS.
    This is going to be a tough one as agencies go back and forth on the standards and the complex methods used by Polymet to mitigate runoff. My biggest concern with the project is the financial ability of Polymet to complete what they are promising in the EIS, both during mine operation and after closure. This is not MInnesota MIning or Rio Tinto, but a small company for which this is their main activity. If something goes wrong, do they have the means to put it right.
    The attitude of many on the Range is that the objections are from the Twin Cities elite who want unmolested views during their vacation visit. In the meantime the locals go without jobs, living on the food stamps generously provided by the visitors, who are also telling them what they can do with land already pockmarked with old mine pits.

  5. Submitted by Christopher Loch on 03/04/2010 - 07:41 pm.

    the national forest is all of our land, not just the land of people who live up there. that is a fact that cannot be disputed. so please don’t get all over people from the metro for being “elites”. that phony populism that limbaugh (a multi-millionaire elite) tries to use doesn’t suit the people up north, and they don’t appreciate you applying it to them either. this article was written by some one who lives up there, hello! apparently if you don’t destroy your own assets you are an elite?

  6. Submitted by C.A. Arneson on 03/04/2010 - 07:57 pm.

    Mr. Westgard,

    There was also modeling done at the Former Finland Air Force Station (FFAFS), and it turned out the modeling was wrong. When it came to understanding the groundwater movement in the area, it took approximately ten years to have an accurate picture. Damage control was the outcome for the chemical contamination at the site. The FFAFS was approximately a 200-acre site. The PolyMet/NorthMet site is thousands of acres. The essential groundwater studies were not done for the NorthMet DEIS.

  7. Submitted by Rolf Westgard on 03/04/2010 - 09:18 pm.

    If you read the 714 page EIS as I have, you will see how complex this one is. But the project should not be dismissed out of hand.
    REW. Professional member, Geological Society of America.

  8. Submitted by Bud Butler on 03/04/2010 - 09:37 pm.

    The process is working and the mine will be environmentally responsible and safe.
    The DNR and the Army Corps will look at the EPA’s comments though most all of the EPA’s requests are already being pursued through the process.

    I want to personally thank the EPA, the concerned citizens, Water Legacy and their attorney, and last our local resort owners for their comments. Their contributions will help make the FEIS bullet proof and make the Polymet Mine a reality.

    Everyone I know on the Iron Range is for this mine. The opponents do not live here. Ely is not part of the Iron Range, St.Paul is not part of the Iron Range. All of our local legislatures are for this mine, most all others in the state are for this mine also with the exception of a few with separate agendas in St.Paul in my opinion.

    I say this, Keep your nose out of our business. This is our home, it’s our land. We live here year around, you don’t. We’ve been mining the Range for over 100 years and we’re not about to stop because of a couple of resort owners and tree huggers having exaggerated fantasies of reality.
    Polymet will be the most environmentally responsible, safe, and clean mine on this planet. Deal with it.

  9. Submitted by C.A. Arneson on 03/05/2010 - 12:08 am.

    Mr. Westgard,
    I have read the DEIS. I am a teacher by profession and have researched sulfide mining extensively. PolyMet opens the door to proposed sulfide mining in my watershed, but I am equally concerned for watersheds to Lake Superior. If I had found evidence that sulfide mining could be done safely in Minnesota I would have included it, but I have not found such evidence. In fact, the more research I did the more concerned I became and my research has been exhaustive. I have gone through hundreds of documents from the MPCA, the MDNR, and various Mining Company documents, particularly those focusing on the Dunka Mine and the Ash pile failure near Taconite Harbor. Information from the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board’s Regional Copper Nickel Study and Technical documents from the USEPA were invaluable. I have read scientific papers and spoken with scientists, including biologists, chemists, toxicologists, geologists and hydrogeologists who share my concerns. I have spoken with concerned Agency employees, active and retired. My broader scope has been on sulfide mining operations in the U.S. and worldwide. In other words I have done my homework. It is a complex issue and there are many problems with the project. I focused on one issue that makes sulfide mining in Minnesota unfeasible – its impact on surface and groundwater in such a water intensive, fractured bedrock setting as ours. Rather than dismissing the project out of hand, I made sure my position was a researched and educated decision. To do any less would have been unheeding of the legitimate economic concerns of this region.

  10. Submitted by Rolf Westgard on 03/05/2010 - 07:34 am.

    General comments about sulfide mining do not make a case. The Insitute of Energy and Environmental Research(IEER) is one of the ardent foes of Polymet and nuclear energy. They testified, as did I, last week in the MN Senate about the bill to remove the MN ban on nuclear plants. Their testimony was technical nonsense.
    The IEER video against Polymet goes on and on about the irrelevant Boundary Waters and announces the death of the Big Blackfoot River in Montana. That river has suffered the effects of 100 years of sulfide mining. but it is not dead; it is alive and well as one the better fly fishing rivers in the West. I m not recommending sulfide mining for rivers, just cautioning about non-specific exaggeration.
    Mr Arneson, your lengthy dissertation had few specifics. By the way what subject do you teach?

  11. Submitted by Bud Butler on 03/05/2010 - 08:05 am.

    Mr.Arneson, you have zero proof through all of your research that Polymet will pollute any waterways. Show me the proof that this will happen? I don’t want to see other mine problems from the past, Polymet isn’t just any other mine. It will be the safest most environmentally responsible mine ever on this plantet. I have read the proof in the DEIS, have you?
    Your argument of “other” mines having problems won’t stand, I’m sorry but it doesn’t work that way.

    Also Polymet has nothing to do with “your” watershed. There is this great big hill called the Laurentian Divide that doesn’t allow our water to flow north. For you to say it opens the door because other companies might mine on your side of the hill is ridiculous. If that is your concern then deal with those companies, not Polymet.

    If these are the types of arguments against our mine then I feel very satisfied that the DNR and the Army Corps has done their job and it won’t be long before we start digging, thank you.

  12. Submitted by Christopher Loch on 03/05/2010 - 08:11 pm.

    Pardon me Bud, but it isn’t your land. Its national forest land. Why don’t you get that?

  13. Submitted by Bud Butler on 03/06/2010 - 08:10 am.

    Christopher, it won’t be for very much longer and yes I do get that. Land swap in progress.
    Next week we have the hearings. After Polymet presents it’s side of the case the pending bill will be dismissed just like last time. From there it’s the FEIS and permits.
    Polymet has done everything right, followed the process correctly. We will have our mine, no doubt about it.

  14. Submitted by C.A. Arneson on 03/06/2010 - 10:28 am.

    Mr. Westgard,
    In the interest of “non-specific exaggeration” for the readers.

  15. Submitted by Andrew Urban on 03/06/2010 - 12:37 pm.

    I thought these pieces of information about the PolyMet project might be usefull. Since 1998 the United States has required mining companies to report all pollutants under the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI). In 2005, the 72 mines in the U.S. reporting to the TRI released more than 500 millions kilograms of toxic substance to mine tailing and waste rock. This accounted for 27% of all U.S. pollutants reported.

    The EPA comments on the PolyMet project points to the fact that the existing tailings pond that PolyMet proposes to use is already leaking. The toxic waste from that pond may impact mercury and other toxic levels in Lake Superior.

    If you research the EIS statements of mines in other parts of the U.S. you will see that all of them “prove” that pollution will not take place and the any discharge of toxic waste will be within state guidlines. The millions of private and Super Fund dollars spent on trying to clean up these operations should give pause to those who enthusiastically believe that if millions are spent on a DEIS it must be good.

    I would also point out that much of the DEIS is based on professional opinion and not hard data. Indeed some data like the effect of water flow in the Partridge River is unavailable because stations to measure such flow were decomissioned years ago because of budget cuts. These were budget cuts to the same agencies we are expecting to monitor and protect us today.

    Finally, I question anyone who claims “everyone” on the range is in favor of this project. That is obviously false.

  16. Submitted by Mary Ann Jurgens on 03/06/2010 - 02:20 pm.

    Shutting your eyes, ears and mind to existing problems doesn’t make them go away. There is no “proof” in the DEIS that Polymet either understands or has the ability to mitigate the pollution that is sure to follow if this mine opens. Simply saying that mitigation will occur is not “proof.”

    So far, all we have from Polymet is promises: promises that it will be an environmentally responsible mine and promises that people will be hired. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says that employment in mining for metal ores is expected to decline by 10 percent through 2018.
    (Career Guide to Industries, 2010-2011 edition)

    What is the history of mining companies and their ability to deliver on their promises of environmentally responsible operations? An Earthworks white paper (Predicting Water Quality at Hardrock Mines, Alan Septoff December 2006) arrived at the following conclusions for mines in environments similar to the Polymet mine:
    Predictions vs. Reality: Mines near Water with Elevated Acid Drainage or Contaminant Leaching Potential are High Risk
    Some mine projects are so high risk that water quality exceedances are a near certainty: those mines that are both near groundwater or surface water resources, and possess an elevated potential for acid drainage or contaminant leaching.
    • 85% of the mines near surface water with elevated potential for acid drainage or contaminant leaching exceeded water quality standards
    • 93% of the mines near groundwater with elevated potential for acid drainage or contaminant leaching exceeded water quality standards.
    • Of the sites that did develop acid drainage, 89% predicted that they would not.

    Keep this is mind: profits from Polymet will go to Polymet, a Canadian company. Cleanup costs may well be paid by Minnesotans. That doesn’t make it “your” mine, or “your” watershed, it’s “our” responsibility

  17. Submitted by Bud Butler on 03/06/2010 - 08:28 pm.

    Thanks for your opinions Mary Ann Jurgens and that’s just what they are, opinions. You have nothing to compare with. What Polymet will do is completely different so there is no comparison. We’ll take your opinions into consideration when we release the FEIS and acquire permits to mine.

    I would like to know what “clean up” costs you’re talking about? Are you saying that Polymet will harm the environment and there will be clean up costs? Well then prove it, you can’t because it’s just your opinion. I think I’ll accept the facts from the professionals over what a few tree hugging extremists say.

    We have mined all around where the Northmet Project will be, we have for over 100 years. Same ground, same rock, same everything.
    I come from many generations of miners here on the Iron Range, we do know what we’re doing. Our home consists of mining land. There are mining pits and tailings piles all around us, it’s who we are and who we will always be. We have always eaten the fish from the rivers and lakes, eaten the deer and the rabbits and the grouse. Our granparents lived long lives, we will live long lives and we will continue to mine as our sons and daugters will also!

    I’m so tired of the pompous outsiders sticking their noses into our business just because you want to come up here on your weekends off and claim it as your own. If you don’t like what we’re doing then stay home.

    Polymet will be a mine, period.

  18. Submitted by Gary Clements on 03/11/2010 - 11:15 pm.

    Thank you C.A. Arneson for a thoughtful and intelligent article on the dangers of sulfide mining in a wetland environment, and the shortcomings of the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, which were also recognized clearly by the EPA. As I read the responses to this article, it is clear to me that some folks, including Polymet, do not think that pollution will occur, in spite of clear statements in the DEIS that it will. Simple question: If they are so sure there will be no pollution to clean up and pay for, why are they lobbying so hard against any Financial Assurances bill in the Legislature? If they are confident they will not have to pay for the resulting pollution, they should put their money where their mouth is, and agree to shoulder the cost of the protections. All of us taxpayers will have to foot the bill for their cleanup if the company that proposes to extract the minerals is able to dodge that responsibility. And that is clearly what they are trying to do.

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