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Given evasiveness, it’s hard to trust PolyMet’s assurances

Aerial view of the Polymet Mining site.

ELY, Minn. — Trust has been identified as a key issue in the debate over PolyMet‘s plans for sulfide mining near Hoyt Lakes. I paid particular attention to comments posted on a recent Duluth News Tribune column, “Trust at heart of copper mine debate,” including one by a reader who suggested sulfide mining would not harm our waters as long as Bradley  Moore, PolyMet’s executive vice president of environmental and governmental affairs, was at the helm. The comment writer cited Moore’s background and expounded, “When it comes to truth and trust, I’d rank him near the top.”

In order to trust, one has to be told the truth, and an evasion of the truth is as harmful as a lie. Moore may be a nice guy, but he also showed himself recently to be a skillful evader. Here are three examples from an Izaak Walton League sulfide-mining forum on May 2 in Duluth, where Moore was a presenter.

Union or non-union?

First, Moore was asked if PolyMet would commit to hiring union workers for nonconstruction work. Moore’s reply was that they were committed to hiring “unionized construction workers.”

Notice that he did not answer the question. The question was concerning nonconstruction workers. Afterward, Moore was again asked privately, and with no way to maneuver he admitted they would not commit to hiring union employees after construction.

PolyMet may well be following the same pattern as the Mesabi Nugget plant in Hoyt Lakes; after receiving strong support from the unions, it has now become a nonunion company.

Believe what we say …

Second, Moore denied that PolyMet has a problem with the sulfate standard, saying, “We are not opposed to 10 milligrams per liter.”

That must be why they have tried so hard through the efforts of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and certain Minnesota legislators to change the standard — a standard that was established through scientific research, a standard established before our waters were severely impacted by industry.

Not only are they trying to change the sulfate standard, they are also trying to invent a definition of what constitutes a stand of wild rice. No surprise that none of the wild rice stands below PolyMet – stands already damaged by mining discharges – would be large enough to qualify by PolyMet’s definition. Their logic is that once waters are polluted, or wild rice stands damaged, they don’t count anymore. Finish them off.

When all else fails, change the subject

Third, the question was asked, “Can you assure us that you will not be releasing these sulfates?”

It is well known that sulfates play a roll in the conversion of mercury to methyl mercury, that methyl mercury accumulates in the fish living in our waters, and bio-accumulates in us when we eat them. We now have a study of the Lake Superior Basin that found 10 percent of Minnesota’s newborns have unsafe levels of toxic mercury in their blood, likely from their mothers ingesting mercury-laden fish.

So, what did Moore say in response to the question about PolyMet’s sulfate release? He did not answer it. He talked about the amount of mercury blowing in from China.

He knows perfectly well that in PolyMet’s case the sulfates that will be released are a bigger issue than where the mercury originates. Sulfates don’t care where the mercury comes from when they work their magic and turn it into methyl mercury. Our waters have more than enough mercury sitting in their sediments right now, along with sulfate-reducing bacteria, just waiting for those PolyMet sulfates to trigger methyl mercury production. And not only wild rice will be affected; so will our children.

Our children are the winners this time

It appears that the Minnesota courts, namely in Ramsey County, understood the importance of upholding the sulfate standard. As WaterLegacy attorney Paula Maccabee, reported: “in December of 2010, the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, on behalf of its mining industry members, filed a lawsuit in district court to prevent the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) from applying Minnesota’s wild rice sulfate standard to protect natural stands of wild rice from sulfate pollution, including discharge from mine waste rock piles and tailings basins. WaterLegacy and the MPCA both filed motions for summary judgment in January of 2012; they presented their arguments on the first of March.”

The morning of May 11 WaterLegacy learned that “Judge Margaret Marrinan upheld the wild rice sulfate standard and granted the motion for summary judgment [PDF] — dismissal of all claims without going to trial.” Judge Marrinan ruled that the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce Complaint should be dismissed “in its entirety with prejudice and on the merits.” Maccabee explained, “This means the case was thrown out on the substance, not a technicality, and they can’t make the same claims again.”

Ironically, Moore was oddly prophetic when he claimed PolyMet was not opposed to the 10-milligrams-per-liter sulfate standard. Little did he know the standard would be upheld, and PolyMet would have the opportunity to prove it. Which gives it one big problem. How?

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


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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by mark wallek on 05/20/2012 - 09:29 am.

    Trust NOT an issue

    Trust is not an issue because PolyMet cannot be trusted, and should be treated like it needs constant and thorough supervision, because it does. Any corner cut to enhance profit will be paid for, as it always is, by the rest of us, with the corruption of the land and the skirting of social and environmental responsibility. Never trust the inhuman motives of a corporate entity and the individuals who have sold their souls to profit.

  2. Submitted by Brent Chezick on 05/21/2012 - 04:45 pm.

    So what will it take Mr. Arneson?

    Under what circumstances would it be acceptable, in your opinion, to allow Polymet to mine Mr. Arneson? It seems you believe Polymet should be held to a zero emissions standard. Aren’t the standards set by the EPA, MPCA, and DNR good enough for you? If not, what makes you an authority? Do you have an engineering degree?

    If you want to talk about trust how about we talk about some of the baseless claims/ outright lies I have heard from the anti-mining activist crowd? So far Polymet looks like a saint compared to some of the anti-mining activists I have talked to.

    From what scientific study did you conclude that additional sulfate loading from Polymet will increase mercury methylation? The studies I have read on the subject have been blatantly inconclusive. You must have read a study on the subject to make the statement “He knows perfectly well that in PolyMet’s case the sulfates that will be released are a bigger issue than where the mercury originates.”. I don’t disagree that sulfates play a role in mercury methylation but we need to be intellectually honest here and ask the correct question which is: “How will Polymet affect mercury methylation in our waters?”

    • Submitted by C.A. Arneson on 08/05/2012 - 09:07 pm.


      Since you brought it up, an engineer is not a scientist. “An engineer is a person who designs, builds, or maintains engines, machines, or public works.”

      PolyMet must at least adhere to the current 10mg/L sulfate standard (natural sulfate levels are approximately 4mg/L) that Minnesota scientifically established decades ago when our waters were still relatively unimpacted by mining. Evidently the mining industry is not interested in doing so, partly because the taconite mines cannot meet 10mg/L, but largely because proposed sulfide-mining projects would not be able to meet 10mg/L either, unless they change the law. And they are actively campaigning to do just that. The mining industry, the Chamber of Commerce, and many of our elected officials want the wild-rice sulfate standard weakened to 50mg/L, or far worse, basically saying it doesn’t matter anymore because mining has already contaminated our waters. Never mind we might want to try to clean them up. And the wild rice stands, struggling precisely because of mining contamination, are now being measured by mining industry representatives to see if the damaged stands are large enough to “qualify” according to their arbitrary specifications.

      Kill it and then say it does not exist so the standard does not apply is quite a tactic.

      PolyMet’s failed DEIS listed five costly “mitigation” strategies for sulfates, all of which required perpetual treatment. Mitigation only means, “reducing the severity;” leaving quite a range of contamination to attempt to treat. Obviously PolyMet’s sulfates would have an affect on mercury methylation in our waters; particularly in light of an agency penchant to giving variances or shutting down treatment systems as happened at Dunka; particularly in light of the fact that the primary purpose of a mining corporation is profit. It remains to be seen what new strategies are offered in PolyMet’s SEIS.

      But perhaps you are referring to the Barr Engineering industry-generated 2009/2010 study that ignored relevant peer-reviewed scientific studies. Barr did not adequately evaluate increased methylmercury production downstream from PolyMet’s sulfate releases. It did not properly delineate subwatersheds. It did not properly monitor or consider possible storm events (think about the type of event we saw this summer). It did not do a survey for methylation hot spots, even using one hot spot as a control; nor did it address beaver activity related to hot spots. It avoided sampling lake bottom sediments that are an important component in the complex methylation process. In fact it ignored an entire sulfate/mercury methylation chain of events all the way to Lake Superior.

      The mining industry has polluted our waters with sulfates until it has reached the point where mercury methylation levels off (above 8mg/L); now the industry has the gall to argue that the sulfate standard can be ignored or even changed because it would not make a difference. The industry conveniently ignores the truth; that the impact of sulfates on waters further downstream would make a huge difference for methylation of mercury where sulfate levels are still under 8mg/L. It is so devious an argument that it would be laughable if the consequences were not so devastating for the Arrowhead.

      “According to the Barr Technical Memorandum of April 25, 2008 Table 1, the seepage rate of sulfate leachate to the Embarrass and therefore St Louis watershed is 6803 gpm. You can do the math and get 9,796,320 g/d of leachate with a high concentration of sulfate, somewhere downstream we will have higher fish tissue mercury.” (Len Anderson)

      What could happen to the mercury levels in our fish, and in blood levels of our newborns, if we had sulfate levels of 4mg/L in our waters again? Our children and grandchildren have a right to clean water and safe-to-eat fish. We have a responsibility to see that they do, and not accept any corporation making them its victims.

      The following are peer-reviewed studies on mercury methylation:

      1. Gilmour CC, Henry EA & Mitchell R (1992) Sulfate stimulation of mercury methylation in freshwater sediments. Environ. Sci. Technol. 26: 2281-2287

      2. Hines NA & Brezonik PL (2007) Mercury inputs and outputs at a small lake in Northern Minnesota. Biogeochem. 84: 265-284

      3. Jeremiason JD, Engstrom DR, Swain EB, Nater EA, Johnson B, Almendinger JE, Monson BA & Kolka RK (2006) Sulfate Addition Increases Methylmercury Production in an Experimental Wetland. Environ. Sci. Tech. 40: 3800-3806

      4. Mitchell CPJ, Branfireun BA & Kolka RK (2008a) Spatial Characteristics of Net Methymercury Production Hot Spots in Peatlands. Environ. Sci. Tech. 42: 1010-1016

      5. Mitchell CPJ, Branfireun BA & Kolka RK (2008b) Assessing Sulfate and Carbon Controls on Net Methylmercury Production in Peatlands: An In-situ Mesocosm Approach. Applied Geochemistry 23: 503-518

      6. Porvari P, Verta M (2003) Total and methyl mercury concentrations and fluxes from small boreal forest catchments in Finland. Environ Pollut. 123:181–191

      7. Regnell O, Ewald G & Lord E (1997) Factors controlling temporal variation in methyl mercury levels in sediment and waters in a seasonally stratified lake. Limnology and Oceanography 42: 1784-1795.

      8. Reginal O, Watras CJ, Troedsson BO, Anders H, Tammer T, (2009) Mercury in a Boreal Forest Stream-Role of Historical Mercury Pollution, TIC, Temperature, and Water Discharge. Environmental Science & Technology / Vol. 43, 3514-3521

      9. Roy V, M Amyot, and R Carignan (2008) Seasonal methylmercury dynamics in water draining three beaver impoundments of varying age. J Geophysical Res., 114, G00C06, doi:10.1029/2008JG000763.

      10. St. Louis V, Rudd J, Kelly C, Beaty K, Flett R & Roulet NT (1996) Production and loss of methylmercury and loss of total mercury from boreal forest catchments containing different types of wetlands. Environ. Sci. Technol. 30: 2719-2729

      11. Watras C J (2009) Mercury Pollution in Remote Freshwaters. In: Gene E Likens, (editor) Encyclopedia of inland Waters. Volume 3, pp. 100-109 Oxford: Elsevier

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