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Mining on the Range: Half the story is half the truth

Sled dog protest against mining

Courtesy of the Timberjay/Sue Schurke

On Feb. 29, sled dog teams kicked off from Ely and Grand Marais, relaying to deliver sulfide-mining petitions with thousands of signatures to Gov. Mark Dayton at the Minnesota State Capitol.

ELY, Minn. – On Feb. 29, according to WDIO.com, there was “Mining Support in St. Paul.” Unfortunately, it neglected to report the rest of the story.

“Ely Mayor Roger Skraba said his community supports mining [copper-nickel] and has passed a resolution to show its support. ‘We have people coming to our community, who are not from our community, telling us what to do. I want to tell those people: Thanks for the advice, but I think we know what we want and we know how to do it.’ ”

WDIO could have reported the entire story. I assume Mayor Skraba was referring to either the resolution unanimously passed by the Ely City Council or the resolution passed by the St. Louis County Commissioners. The seven commissioners passed it by one vote, 4-3, hardly an affirmation, and an amended version that basically supported the environmental review and permitting process.

WDIO could also have reported that, in February, Democratic caucuses in townships surrounding Ely passed sulfide-mining resolutions, either to not permit sulfide mines “if they threaten” our waters, or asking for “prove it first” legislation. Morse Township, Fall Lake Township, Winton, Unorganized 64-12, Eagles Nest Township, Breitung Township, Stony River Township all passed resolutions. Even the Ely precinct was divided; with the sulfide mining resolution defeated 30 to 26. Four votes.

Hardly unanimous

These results were not an endorsement by a community, despite the implication having been made that the support was an essentially unanimous one. Hardly.

The people at these caucuses were all members of their community. They live there, they work there, they support or own local businesses, they volunteer and support the schools, they vote, and they pay their taxes. To leave their opinions out of the discussion – more than half of the vote – is only telling half of the story.

Coincidently, also on Feb. 29, sled dog teams kicked off from Ely and Grand Marais, relaying to deliver sulfide-mining petitions with thousands of signatures to Gov. Mark Dayton at the Minnesota State Capitol. They are due to arrive at the Capitol on the morning of March 8, carrying petitions asking the governor and the Legislature for protection of Minnesota’s waters – all representing community voices expecting to be heard.

'We know how to do it'

WDIO quoted several other local officials. "’We've been mining on the Range for 130 years. We know how to do it,’ said Sen. Dave Tomassoni.” That is why the mining industry in Minnesota has been fined over $700,000 since 2004, and now has water and air contamination it cannot clean up.

Rep. Carly Melin said, ‘We all use these metals and there's no reason to get these from a foreign country.’ " Glencore would be selling them on the open market and we would still be buying them back – if we were not outbid in the process.

“St. Louis County Board Chair Keith Nelson said, ‘If it can't be done safely here, it can't be done safely anywhere.’ ” That is the point; sulfide mining has not been done safely anywhere, including in the United States. To play those kinds of odds is illogical.

WDIO ended with the following quote: “Rep. Tom Rukavina added, ‘When the Range hums, the state hums. It would be wise for the entire state to get behind us.’ "

Maybe the entire state wants to hum a different tune, including the Arrowhead of Minnesota. Maybe it is time we all tried humming in unison. Together we can find ways to improve the economic picture without harming what Minnesotans unabashedly love: our most valuable natural resource – our waters.

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

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Comments (8)

Mr Arneson and I will continue to disagree

There is a 714-page Draft Environmental Impact Statement(DEIS) for the Polymet Project from the Minnesota DNR and the Corps of Engineers. It is clear from the statement that any effluent from the project ends up in the drainage areas of the Partridge and Embarrass Rivers. Those rivers flow south to the St Louis River and Lake Superior, not north to the Boundary Waters.
The DEIS is generally positive about the project, and it suggests that if all of Polymet's commitments are met, there is no serious impact on the environment. The following quote from the DEIS on the Partridge River applies to its analysis of the three rivers involved:


"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."


Reply to Rolf's comments

I believe that Mr. Westgard is using some outdated information. The PolyMet DEIS was so poorly written that the EPA gave it the lowest rating--environmentally unsatisfactory. As a result, more water tests need to be done and incorporated into a supplemental DEIS slated to be out some time this fall. There is also research being done on the problem with sulfates in regard to mercury and to wild rice. Sulfates and mercury are a byproduct of taconite mining, and will be exacerbated by additional mining. Over the past 60 years, our state agencies have not upheld the standards that were in place, resulting in increasing contamination of the St. Louis River watershed. In regards to the Boundary Waters, in your 2nd comment you mention Antofagasta. You must realize that Twin Metals/Antofagasta exploration is taking place just adjacent to the BWCAW. The opening of a sulfide mining district in the Arrowhead would impact both the Boundary Waters and the Lake Superior watershed. Which is why thousands of people have signed petitions seeking to protect our waters by placing a moratoriumon sulfide mining.

It's coming

The mine is coming; let's do it right. The DEIS is the best we have, and the drainage is south not north. It doesn't mean we won't protect the south, and we can.

Mr. Westgaard,

An EIS or a DEIS is not evaluated according to the number of pages it contains; it is evaluated by its relevant scientific content. Even the USEPA rated PolyMet’s DEIS and its conclusions unsatisfactory; few such documents have received such a low EPA rating. The problem is: Will the project meet the DEIS assumptions? For example: the plan to dispose of higher-level sulfide waste rock underwater. The DEIS ignored data that has existed for over thirty years. The literature states that an underwater disposal method in some specific cases may reduce acid leachates, but no report provides the statement that the reduction would meet federal water standards where a specific mine is located. And most articles state site-specific data must be used before such underwater disposal activities are undertaken. No such data has been used in this DEIS. Yet we have lab data from the Regional Copper Nickel Study, a multi-million dollar study by the state in 1979, which shows leaching of nickel will be above water standards. (Environmental Leaching of Duluth Gabbro under Laboratory and Field Conditions: Oxidative Dissolution of Metal Sulfide and Silicate Minerals, Paul Eger, Kim Lapakko, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Division of Minerals, 1980, fig.3.36). The Partridge River alone should have a Nickel standard of around 40 ug/L (0.040mg/l). The Eger and Lapakko study shows releases of 1mg/L after only 800 hours (33.3 days) (This study and others from the Copper Nickel Study can be found online at the legislative library). We also have two test mines in the Duluth Complex that have been flooded and sealed for 30-40 years. One is MinnAmax (Near Babbitt), which is flooded, and the other is INCO (South Kawishiwi River area), which is filled with waste rock and flooded. Potentially other bulk sample sites in the area also exist that would be anoxic. Why, at least, have these mines not been used for water testing to see if their waters will meet standards? All it would take is a relatively inexpensive drilling of the caps and sampling of the water to ensure it meets state standards. This is just one example. There are numerous other similar examples of the failure to use existing data in PolyMet’s DEIS, which makes the statement “relative conservative assumptions” far less than scientifically accurate.

Mr. Arneson

The DEIS is now irrelevant. Why insist on beating a dead horse? How about waiting for the SDEIS before you start passing judgement on the Project?

More on the big new potential on the Range

It is very important any new mine project have substantial resources to make sure that any eventuality is covered. Polymet Corp is small with limited resources.
Recall the billions BP had to put up in the recent problem in the Gulf.
Fortunately two large players, Glencore and Antofagasta are involved, and they need to be on the hook to correct any problems that develop.

If mining does get approved, watch out for deregulation.

Let us suppose that the copper/nickel mining companies have somehow convinced enough of the folks on the appropriate governing agencies that the environmental risks are low, and mining is approved for northeast Minnesota. Let us also assume that the mining companies have convinced the same people that finances will be there so that if an environmental disaster does occur, the taxpayers of Minnesota are not left with the huge clean up expenses.

Even with the very best of intentions, accidents during the mining operations will happen, and so will good old fashioned human carelessness. Things sometimes just plain go wrong, as they are quite prone to do. Guaranteed. Let's face it, we are human. What we think are very complete environmental impact studies, especially regarding areas where interconnecting water is nearly everywhere, will perhaps give us some warm fuzzies. But there simply are no guarantees here.

But there is one thing we can virtually count on if mining is approved for northeastern Minnesota. The mining companies will start pushing for deregulation of their mining operations as soon as these operations start to scale up. Guaranteed! It is a religion for those of a particular political bend to shout that all governmental environmental regulations are "burdensome", or that they are "job killers" etc. etc. etc. We've all heard this chorus before, even when strict regulations are deemed absolutely necessary, and all parties have agreed on these regulations.

Regulation whining

I think we can trust Minnesota to maintain its extensive regulations. All this whining about regulations by Republicans is misplaced. Remember what happened in the savings and loan industry when Reagan removed the regulations,and the mess taxpayers were left with. Then there were the wide open 1920s on Wall Street.
It's time for the dirt to fly on the Range.