Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.

Donate
Topics
Community Voices features opinion pieces from a wide variety of authors and perspectives. (Submission Guidelines)

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.

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.