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Chamber, corporations pursue sulfide mining at cost of degrading Minnesota’s waters

It was bad enough when the U.S. Supreme Court bestowed corporations with personhood – but under the guise of the title Chamber of Commerce, Minnesota now has its own corporative dictator. And Minnesota’s dictator wants sulfide mining at all costs – including the permanent degradation of Minnesota waters.

Sulfide mining is all about jobs. Or so they say.

Who will benefit most from sulfide mining? Is it about jobs? Or is it all about lining the pockets of corporations? Get rid of one water standard, and on to the next.

Change law rather than enforce it
The wild rice amendment to Minnesota’s recent budget bill spelled it out loud and clear. The Chamber supported the amendment by adding its own caveat – that no companies should be held accountable for pollution until a decision is made concerning the validity of the current sulfate standard. Established science was cast aside as being irrelevant.

The Chamber petitioned the MPCA demanding that the agency “eliminate the current water quality standard for sulfate of 10 mg/L and replace it with a new sulfate standard that is consistent with current science.” The Chamber would point out that it “asked.” I would point out that “asked” is an incongruous word when the Chamber filed a lawsuit against the MPCA in parallel action.

The fact that the MPCA has not enforced the standard does not absolve industry of its failure to adhere to a standard that is law. Sulfide mining proposed for Minnesota may not be able to meet the existing sulfate standard — existing taconite mines cannot meet it, either because they are unable to, or because the industry does not want to spend the money to ensure they do, or both.

So, the Chamber’s answer is to change the standard — and in the meantime ignore it. Long enough for PolyMet to get its proposed sulfide mining operation permitted?

The Chamber also ignored the fact that Minnesota’s waters were not critically contaminated with sulfates in 1973 when the standard was set — and they are now. Yet there is no mention made that the MPCA should correlate the water quality of 1973 with any “current science” of today — in other words use the documented water quality of 1973 as the basis for determining today’s sulfate standard.

Instead it intends to use the polluted waters of 2011 as the basis. Mining and other industry have changed our waters — obliterated wild rice in many of our lakes and rivers — and now the industries responsible want to make their illegal actions legal by changing the law rather than having it enforced.

One of the more inane Chamber arguments is that the standard has not been enforced in the past — why start now.

Wild rice is not the only thing harmed
What is not reported often enough is the fact that sulfates are inextricably tied to the formation of methylmercury, which bio-accumulates in the fish we catch and eat from Minnesota lakes — which then bio-accumulates in us. Our lakes are already impaired for mercury. Our children — those born and the unborn fetus — are the most susceptible and the most easily damaged.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports: “For fetuses, infants, and children, the primary health effect of methylmercury is impaired neurological development. Methylmercury exposure in the womb, which can result from a mother’s consumption of fish and shellfish that contain methylmercury, can adversely affect a baby’s growing brain and nervous system. Impacts on cognitive thinking, memory, attention, language, and fine motor and visual spatial skills have been seen in children exposed to methylmercury in the womb.”  

Yet the Chamber was, and is, front and center advocating for a change in the sulfate standard. Chamber corporations expect us to hand over our waters, and our health, for their profits.  

The power behind the Chamber
Draw your own conclusions. Take a look at the Board of Directors of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. It reads like who’s who of polluters: Minnesota Xcel Energy; Otter Tail Corporation; Minnesota Power; Boise, Inc.; United States Steel Corporation; UPM-Kymmene Blandin Paper; 3M; Koch Industries, Inc.; and Cargill. There are directors on the Chamber Board representing companies, such as L & M Radiator, Inc., that sound bland — until you look at their website and see photos of colossal mining vehicles and off-shore drilling rigs. Then there is Wells Fargo and U.S. Bank, its parent company U.S. Bancorp, with loans, investors, and investments for industry.

These corporations have ties to mining and sulfates through electrical emissions, metals, mineral extraction, chemicals, fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides, equipment, and finance; or water pollution legacies.

Corporative connections
Mind-boggling amounts of coal-fired electricity are needed for each proposed sulfide mining operation. Coal-fired power plants in Minnesota are not meeting regulations now. In 2005, Tom Meersman, Star Tribune, reported: “The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency last year weakened a statewide proposal to reduce smokestack mercury emissions after giving utility and industry officials an early, behind-the-scenes opportunity to suggest revisions … discussing the draft plan with major mercury emitters, including Minnesota Power and Xcel Energy…”

Xcel’s coal-fired power plant near Becker, Minn., — Sherco — is one of the top polluting coal plants in the nation. Three trainloads of coal are burned daily. Little to nothing has been done to curb, let alone stop, its toxic pollution. Interesting to note that if Sherco actually is dealt with, “taconite facilities in northern Minnesota will become the largest emitting industry source of mercury to Minnesota’s atmosphere.” (MPCA)

Yet U.S. Steel just made a deal with the MPCA that allows it to send 54 more pounds of mercury into Minnesota’s atmosphere every year.

Minnesota Power/ALLETE supplies six taconite mines and processing plants.

Otter Tail Power Co. was planning a massive coal-fired power plant in South Dakota, Big Stone II, which would have sent much of its carbon emissions blowing over Minnesota – until the EPA overturned South Dakota’s air quality permits — citing lack of pollution controls and immense water usage from the headwaters of the Minnesota River.

3M was sued Dec. 30, 2010, by the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office for groundwater contamination caused by their disposal of perfluorochemicals (PFC’s).

Cargill “processes and trades multiple ferrous product lines globally through locations on four continents”; Minneapolis is one hub. Cargill has been sued numerous times for water contamination in the United States.

Koch or its subsidiaries have paid millions in fines for environmental violations — including illegal dumping and cover-up of water pollution. In 2010, Koch Industries was ranked 10th on the list of top U.S. corporate air polluters, the “Toxic 100 Air Polluters,” by the Political Economic Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. (Wikipedia) United States Steel was 19th.

“Paper pollution” has been coined for the prevalent contamination associated with paper mills.

Like water pollution, the connections keep on spreading
There is an incestuous relationship between the Chamber Board of Directors and member corporations when Chamber directors also serve or have served on boards of Xcel Energy and Cargill and U.S. Bank (U.S. Bancorp), to name a few.

Lobbyists for Koch Industries, Inc. have multiple clients, such as Xcel Energy and the American Coalition for Clean Coal, a bizarre misnomer. Koch Industries is behind “Americans for Prosperity” whose credo is “Removing unnecessary barriers to entrepreneurship and opportunity by sparking involvement in the regulatory process early on in order to reduce red tape.”

Reduce regulatory red tape is another way to say increase air and water pollution.

And what is the Chamber’s “Environment and Natural Resources Policy Committee’s” credo? “Streamline, shorten the timeline and reduce the cost of environmental Permitting. Ensure that climate change policy is addressed at the national or international levels and not state or regional levels. Represent business customers on regulatory issues before Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.”

Who is chair of the Chamber of Commerce Environment and Natural Resources Committee (ENRPC)? Dave Skolasinski, Cliffs Natural Resources, Inc. Cliffs Natural Resources, Inc. is a company with big connections to PolyMet. Cliffs Erie, a subsidiary of Cliffs Natural Resources, Inc., sold LTV to PolyMet for its NorthMet Project — the first sulfide mine project proposed for Minnesota. So, the representative of a mining company is the chair of the Chamber ENRPC. Extraction and Non-ferrous Resources, Inc. Policy Committee would be a better moniker for the ENRPC.

In 2007 Skolasinski represented the Iron Mining Association of Minnesota on the MPCA Water Quality Pollutant Trading Advisory Committee.

And who is the recently hired spokesman for PolyMet? Try Brad Moore, the former head of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency from 2006-2008.

Instead of trading pollution — sort of like trading a disease — wouldn’t it be novel if water standards were followed, violations enforced, and noncompliant industry shut down instead of being allowed to hold states hostage over jobs?  

A red-flag deal
PolyMet is a financially marginal project, just as all proposed sulfide-mining projects are in the disseminated Duluth Complex — meaning the profit margin is so tight it squeaks. The public needs to realize that the mining industry has one goal — to make money — for the company involved and maybe for its investors. Anything that cuts into that goal is a liability. Protection of the environment — your water, air, and ultimately your health — is a liability.

“The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce was recognized as the 2011 Business Leader in Public Policy by Capital Report/Politics in Minnesota for its impact at the Legislature.” (Minnesota Chamber of Commerce) It’s a distinction that raises the question: Just how did the sulfate-standard amendment get included in a budget bill that was to be limited to “non-controversial” policy language and that was not to include “social issues”? What is more of a social issue than our children’s health? Our health?

Last year, according to the Minnesota State Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board, lobbyist principals reported spending $2,654,951 lobbying for the environment and $21,326,394 lobbying for business and energy. 80 percent of lobbying disbursements were made for the purpose of influencing legislative action. Lobbyists for the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce reported the largest total disbursements for legislative action. Xcel Energy Services Inc., a subsidiary of Xcel Energy Inc., reported the largest total disbursements during the period, and also the largest total disbursements for administrative action lobbying.

In 1816, Thomas Jefferson wrote: “I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations which dare already to challenge our government in a trial of strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country.”

In 2011, the survival of our waters depends on it.

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

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Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by rolf westgard on 08/29/2011 - 03:53 pm.

    It is not lobbying that is going to cause this mining project to proceed. It’s the worldwide demand for copper, nickel, and the platinum group metals. A lot of them are critical to renewable energy industries. With substantial investment it can be done safely, but it will require careful monitoring.

  2. Submitted by Debbie Gibbons on 08/29/2011 - 04:38 pm.

    To me – it is all about gold and silver – more gold and silver than anybody needs – only to sit on it – since there is already a surplus of gold and silver in jewelery and silverware and teapots.

    Oh, we could become the “Silver Teapot Party”.

  3. Submitted by Elanne Palcich on 08/29/2011 - 11:50 pm.

    In response to Rolf:

    Does it make sense to base a renewable future on marginal low-grade and non-renewable metals?

    Moreover, can we base a renewable future on worldwide destructive mining operations?

    Corporations have bought out our politics and are promoting policies that are based on greed.

    We need to clean up our environment and our food supply, to research and develop sustainable technologies that reduce our energy footprint, and to become much more self-sufficient on a local level. This will free us from the uncertainties of the market place and provide a support system during changing weather patterns.

  4. Submitted by C.A. Arneson on 08/30/2011 - 01:13 pm.

    Mr. Westgard,
    Corporations must just like visiting with legislators and spending millions on lobbying for no return. Sulfide mining has not been proven safe in a water rich environment. Sulfide mining is 99% waste. The NI 43-101 report for Duluth Metals said it best. “Options for tailings disposal should be examined in greater detail, as there is potential for significant impact on the Project, both in monetary terms and in terms of permitting the Project.” Which also points out that proposed sulfide mining companies have too narrow a profit margin to make a substantial investment in environmental safeguards. So every water standard they can weaken makes it cheaper for them. As for careful monitoring, the taconite mines we have now are not being monitored carefully, if at all – Dunka (closed) has had the water treatment plant shut off because it does not work very well in the winter. Sulfide mining requires perpetual treatment – your grandchildren and great grandchildren are the ones that are going to have to deal with the ramifications of such an unrealistic improbability. Sulfide mines also require tremendous amounts of electricity and our power plants do not meet standards either. As for “renewable energy industries” we need to think long and hard about the direction we take with research. It is hardly “renewable” when we use nonrenewable resources to create and support an energy industry.

  5. Submitted by rolf westgard on 08/30/2011 - 01:53 pm.

    They are not marginal, and there are a lot of them up there. The small amount of gold alone is worth $15-20 million/year. Get ready to watch the big shovels.

  6. Submitted by C.A. Arneson on 08/31/2011 - 12:35 pm.

    Mr. Westgard,

    There are not “a lot of them up there” yet. Minnesota can still choose to protect our waters and institute a moratorium on sulfide mining.

    If sulfide mining was so lucrative and safe – PolyMet would have no problem with financial assurance – instead they have said financial assurance would be a deal-breaker.

    Also, it is relevant, only because you are commenting on an article concerning the power of corporations in Minnesota, to say that you were a VP at 3M for 23 years.

    C.A. Arneson

  7. Submitted by John Kennedy on 04/25/2012 - 03:30 am.

    The bottom line here is that either we accept copper-nickel mining with the latest technology, strictest environmental/labor laws in the world, under the supervision of the best engineers, and with the blessing of the EPA, MPCA , DNR, ACOE etc.or we quit using all the products that are derived from mining in these deposits. This is not a false choice. If you are not willing to do either you are a hypocrite enjoying the substantial increase in quality of life these minerals provide while extracting them from largely third-world countries that have little to no environmental/labor laws.

    Without these minerals we would essentially be living in tee-pees and caves. It is unconscionable to allow other lesser-wealth/developed countries destroy their waters to fulfill our demands while we have the technology and resources to produce the metals here safely. The “not in my back yard” approach is disgraceful. If there is a problem with the current laws you work to fix them not shut down an entire industry or new businesses. If we don’t get our economy back on track we will never be able to afford to develop/purchase the technology to create a sustainable world some day and production from mining is important to getting it back on track.

    • Submitted by C.A. Arneson on 01/10/2013 - 03:16 pm.

      There is a tremendous difference between supporting an industry that meets our air and water quality standards, and an industry that does not. The mining industry does not meet the standards in Minnesota, or elsewhere; its driving purpose is to make money for its investors. It is less expensive to pay fines than to meet air and water quality standards. And our agencies struggle with enforcement because politicians backed by corporate funding often dictate policy.

      The best thing we could do for less developed countries is not destroy our waters too, but rather do exactly what you decried, shut down a corporation that does not comply to regulations; with the requirement that it keeps meeting its payroll until it proves it can meet our standards. If the mining industry is not allowed to continue damaging our health and our water, it will be forced to do what it could do willingly – follow the rules. We also ought to require mining corporations to provide a resume proving that they have not left a mess in a third-world country, before we consider bids on exploratory leases here.

      It is not lack of a law that causes mining contamination; it is greedy corporations with no moral ethic. And people in poor countries are unable to stand up to them. Those countries that tried have been threatened with lawsuits under NAFTA or CAFTA, which of course they cannot afford to fight.

      Would your neighbor be allowed to have a septic system that contaminates your water well? Yet corporations are allowed to contaminate the waters that belong to all of us. In Minnesota, our waters are irreplaceable. To tell us we cannot protect them because we use metals is unconscionable. Contaminating our waters will not do one thing to help third-world countries. Forcing the mining industry to change its practices worldwide will help, and we can start here.

      We have a responsibility to other countries because we use their metals. It is our responsibility to hold mining corporations accountable with prove it first legislation here; and with requiring a resume of their environmental records worldwide. It is our responsibility to force corporations to stop harming our health and our children’s intellect for profit, by electing legislators who give our agencies full support and funding to do their jobs to protect us without interference. It is our responsibility to elect presidents and legislators who do not wage war for another country’s resources, militarily or economically. It is our responsibility to stop being a use it up, throw it away, thoughtless and insatiable society, whose economy is in large part based on the production and purchase of items that end up in a landfill. We could achieve as much from recycling and conserving metals as we could from mining the disseminated Duluth Complex, at the same time preserving our waters for future generations. Those waters will be beyond priceless in the near future.

      One way to help developing countries would be to pay an individual tax on metal products we buy from them – the tax could be built into the price of the product – computers for example. The resulting revenue would be sent to the countries where the metals originated in the form of educational and small business grants.

      What we all need to seriously consider worldwide, is what we are going to do when there are no more metals to mine because metals are finite and unsustainable. This is an opportunity to rethink our economic drivers with an eye to valid sustainability and health, instead of maintaining a blind adherence to a corporate message of greed and gluttony.

      There are places, worldwide, where mining is not acceptable because the danger to water is too great. It is tragically shortsighted that as a society we can only seem to understand its worth by putting a price tag on it, when water is what sustains all life on our planet.

      Water and water based research is the multi-billion dollar industry of the future.

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