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When it comes to mining, Forest Service, Executive Council are in denial

us forest service logoELY, Minn. — The U.S. Forest Service motto is “Caring for the Land and Serving People.” Its mission is, “to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the Nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations.”

“Future generations” does not mean the 20-year lifespan of a sulfide mine. After minerals are mined out, surface resources are also depleted; harvestable trees no longer grow, wetlands are buried or full of heavy metals, and fish in affected lakes and rivers are unsafe to eat because of mercury and sulfate levels.

When did the Forest Service forget the founding intent of the agency? According to “The Forest History Society,” the first Forest Service Chief, Gifford Pinchot, had a “great and unrelenting concern for the protection of the American Forests.” It was Pinchot who used the phrase “in the long run” in order “to emphasize that forest management consists of long-term decisions.”

The Forest Service of today pretends that the inherent intent of “minerals exploration” is not to mine the land, at the same time that sulfide-mining companies are announcing their intent to mine. The Forest Service pretends the outcome of such mining is not the destruction of renewable forests, wild rice, and surface water resources – all for the extraction of non-renewable minerals.

Clear and unclear language

Sulfide mining companies are drilling hundreds of boring holes connecting and carrying contaminants through our aquifers. On May 18, Acting Forest Supervisor Timothy A. Dabney said in the cover letter of the Federal Hardrock Mineral Prospecting Permit EIS, Record of Decision: “I appreciate that there are strong feelings about minerals management on the Superior National Forest. I understand that there are concerns about impacts to natural and social resources on the Forest and to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW). I also understand there is interest in the benefits from economic activity associated with minerals exploration.”

Dabney used specific and positive terms, “benefits from economic activity,” to describe the mining position, but non-specific and unclear language to express the numerous critical issues regarding the environmental, public health and economic impacts of mineral exploration; hardly reflective of the “strong feelings” that do exist. If Dabney had used an antonym of “benefits” such as ”harm, loss, damage, injury, or impairment” to frame specific impacts associated with minerals exploration, he may have achieved some balance.

The single item Dabney selected in his cover letter for “a hard look,” is noise impacts from the drilling, which, while important, pale in comparison to the environmental, health and long-term economic issues that deserve a “hard look.”

Minnesotans need proof, not mythical thinking

On May 31, during the Minnesota Executive Council meeting at the State Capitol, the messaging had a similar tone when the council decided to approve its postponed sale of 77 exploratory mineral leases:

“This is about exploratory drilling.” “It is not about mining.” “If you deny the mineral lease sales it will send a message to investors that Minnesota is not mining friendly.” Anyone else see the contradiction?

I came to the conclusion that our agencies are not going to protect our waters because political appointees have an agenda unlike those working in the ranks. The majority of our legislators are not going to protect our waters because corporations lobby with massive amounts of money. Our Executive Council is not going to protect our waters because it is uniformed or misinformed. Not one member mentioned the fact that no matter how much money is put into a “superfund” for cleanup, it has been proven time and time again that financial assurance has been inadequate for sulfide-mining “remediation” —which, by the way, is not the same thing as cleanup. 

Not one council member mentioned that Minnesota has been unable to clean up its polluting taconite mines. And no one asked the most important question. What if contamination from sulfide mining cannot be cleaned up? The Executive Council said it could not make decisions based on “what ifs,” but the entire pro-sulfide-mining campaign is based on a mantra that it can be done safely, the biggest “what if” of all.

Guilt is a powerful tool of manipulation

“We all use metals.” A message repeatedly used by members of the Executive Council, and campaigned on by mining representatives as the reason we should sacrifice our waters. “We all use metals” is a true statement used for the wrong reason. The United States has long been oblivious to its gluttonous use of the world’s resources, an attitude Minnesota mining is encouraging – and exploiting – rather than being drivers for change. Remember their fat-baby cartoon showing all the metals a baby devours in its lifetime? Not only is it shocking, it also lacks any mention of conservation possibilities. It is strictly an industry self-serving ad for consumption.

“Copper has an infinitely recyclable life … . Each year in the U.S.A., nearly as much copper is recovered from recycled material as is derived from newly mined ore. … The U.S. does not depend on foreign copper … we are completely self-sufficient.” (Copper Development Association Inc.)

You would never know it after listening to the sulfide-mining lobbyists in Minnesota. These are the same folks who hid the fact that our metals would be sold on the open market, while simultaneously expounding on “national security” as their rationale for mining.

Rep. Carly Melin is still spreading the lie, “Those [our minerals] are things that China cannot take away from us, no matter how hard they try,” Melin said at the Minnesota Democratic Convention (Alexandria Echo Press).

If our minerals are mined – unless it is outbid – China already has them.

Minnesota’s legacy

The Iron Range has a proud mining heritage, a message reiterated by the Executive Council. That does not mean northern Minnesota cannot choose a different heritage for its future – without denigrating the past of the Iron Range. From time immemorial countries and people have reinvented themselves.

What we face today is a decision about whether to allow sulfide mining in water-rich Minnesota, one of the worst places on the planet to experiment. The idea that Minnesota has to choose a “balancing act” between water pollution and mining is a sell-out of our waters. And us. It also does not address water usage, another sell-out: Minntac alone “needs ten times as much water each day as the greater Duluth area” (U.S. Steel). What astronomical amount would the proposed sulfide-mining projects add to that load, to the contaminated waters released? 

The best thing Minnesota could do for itself, and the rest of the world, is to hold sulfide-mining companies accountable by enacting prove-it-first legislation. All of us could start focusing our attention on attracting jobs that preserve our wealth of water – companies that will add to our quality of life, not extract our health along with our metals.

Our children were forgotten

It angers me, when considering the Hardrock EIS and the Executive Council meeting, that no one in positions of power seriously considered the looming health impacts to our children from proposed sulfide mining. It is always about money and a comparatively small number of jobs in a rapidly automating industry.

How much is a damaged child worth? Mining companies in the 1970s and 80s did such calculations. When faced with faulty equipment at Bunker Hill, corporative board members calculated how much they would have to pay per damaged child based on a similar Texas lawsuit, decided it was worth it to continue mining, reaped their millions, and then paid a pittance to some Idaho families – whose children were among hundreds of children poisoned.

Are we not doing the same thing, minus the actual calculations? We already have 10 percent of newborns in the Lake Superior basin with toxic levels of mercury in their blood. The Lake Superior basin includes the Iron Range, its taconite mines, and the coal-fired power plants that run them. Operating on variances, they spew sulfates into our waters to orchestrate mercury methylation. Methyl mercury is the toxic form of mercury that bioaccumulates in fish, in us when we eat fish, and in our unborn babies. Taconite mines are the biggest source of sulfate pollution in northern Minnesota. Think of the implications for proposed sulfide mining. Our babies are the canaries of the mining industry, and we are ignoring the ramifications.

We tell expectant mothers not to eat fish, blaming the victims. Pat McCann, the research scientist who conducted the study for the Minnesota Department of Health and the Environmental Protection Agency, reportedly said, “Babies don’t eat fish” (Star Tribune). We have all been conditioned to avoid mercury-laden fish, to keep our children inside when air pollution is high, and to protect them from any number of environmental toxins. Wisely — but the message is that we are to blame if we do not. Corporations releasing the toxins have denied their responsibility, shifted the blame, and we let them get away with it. We have a right to clean air, a right to eat the fish we catch without damaging our unborn children, and a right to demand protection.

Back to the future

Which ironically brings us back full circle, back to the beginnings of the Forest Service. Pinchot “served as chief with great distinction, motivating and providing leadership in the management of natural resources and protection of the national forests. He continued as forester until 1910, when he was fired by President Taft in a controversy over coal claims in Alaska” (The Forest History Society).

Today, we know the effects of coal mining and coal-fired electricity on the health of all of us, especially our children. We cannot plead ignorance, or use the semi-truth of “it was another era” to excuse mining industry practices that cause pollution. We also know that the sulfide mining record of today is dismal.

So ask yourself, “How much is my child worth?”

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


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Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by mark wallek on 06/25/2012 - 09:52 am.

    Always for profit

    It is not suprising that citizens are betrayed by the agencies their tax dollar supports. America is about business and profit for some, as Ronald Reagean declared thru his actions during his presidency. We are watching the consequences of this “new american identity” playing out now as we trash our environment and a few folks get obscenely wealthy.

  2. Submitted by james anderson on 06/25/2012 - 11:27 am.

    sulfide mining

    The only studies needed are trips to past sulfide mining sites. The envrionmental destruction is very apparent. New and untested methods of handling tailings should not be tested in mn.

  3. Submitted by Rod Loper on 06/25/2012 - 11:35 am.

    Make them prove it!

    Thank you for this pointed essay. Would that we had some of the fine environmental reporters and honest editors that we once had in this state. Every newsroom now has a minder or two to
    ensure “balance” on topics such as this. No one is asking the hard questions of the promoters,
    agency staff or politicians any more. Mark Dayton courts the Iron Range and ignores the health of our resources and our children.

  4. Submitted by Lance Groth on 06/25/2012 - 03:13 pm.

    It’s Money that Matters

    What I fail to understand is the willingness of those who live in the area, who presumably choose to live there because they love the lakes and the woods, to trash it for money. I understand that everyone needs a job, but if having the job means befouling the land and waters that you love, surely the cost is too high?

    I am also saddened by the creeping, insidious nature of the damage that we do. Succeeding generations do not, in general, mourn what has been lost, because they never had it, and so can’t understand the precious heritage that has been sacrificed. You don’t miss what you’ve never had, and the impoverished present that you inherit becomes the new normal.

    I recall reading an article somewhere, perhaps this site, which described the impact oil sands mining is having in Canada’s far north. That too was a pristine land of clean waters. The article described the mining sites as resembling Mordor, and the residents, who once lived amid an abundance of the world’s cleanest waters, now must drink bottled water flown in from afar. But even they noted that at least they have good paying jobs, as if that balanced the scales. Too sad.

    Ultimately, I think we all know that the mining is going to happen. Politicians cannot stand against the call of “economic progress”, no matter what the true cost may be. And one more precious corner of a beautiful, living world will be fouled.

    As Randy Newman said, it’s money that matters in the USA.

  5. Submitted by Elanne Palcich on 06/25/2012 - 06:49 pm.

    Is mining inevitable?

    This is in response to Randy’s comment, “Ultimately, I think we all know that the mining is going to happen.” This is what the mining companies want us to believe. Mining can and must be stopped. We citizens need to spread the word to our state and national legislators, to media sources, and to our own neighbors and friends: we cannot allow the desecration of the Arrowhead Region of northeast Minnesota, which includes the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Superior National Forest, and the North Shore of Lake Superior. The mining of northeast Minnesota is not just a local issue; the lands involved belong to the people of this state and of this nation.
    Politicians are focusing on the jobs issue. The jobs created by such mining, though relatively high paying, will be minimal in number and unsafe. The Steelworkers Union recently took a vote to unionize at the Mesabi Nugget plant (sharing old LTV mining company land with proposed PolyMet), due to unsafe work conditions. Yet the vote to unionize failed.
    Voting patterns and union allegiance in northeastern Minnesota are changing. Federal legislators continue to listen to state politicians, who in turn are trying to keep northeast Minnesota tied to the policies and politics of the past century.
    Instead we must realize the value of the lands preserved for us during this past century. When so much in the state has been destroyed–from forests, to prairies, to wetlands–we must value the scenic quality and water resources of northeast Minnesota. We must find a way to balance people and people’s needs with the carrying capacity of the land. Mining of low-grade ores will upset the ecological balance, the micro climate, the ability of wetlands to sequester carbon, and the quantity and quality of ground and surface waters.
    C.A. Arneson’s commentary lays out the path of information so that we can all step forward on the road to stopping the desecration of the Arrowhead.

  6. Submitted by Brian Nelson on 06/25/2012 - 07:33 pm.

    Pinchot was a more complicated…

    than he is being portrayed here. He said: “the first principle of conservation is development, the use of the natural resources now existing on the continent for the benefit of the people who live here now.” This is exactly the sort of thinking that contributes to the sulfide mine that is now being planned. The people at the very top of these mining companies are only looking at quarterly reports. When the mining is done 20, 50 or even 100 years from now a beautiful area will be forever despoiled and the industries that have built up around the BWCAW will probably not exist. Pinchot’s contemporary (and perhaps adversary) John Muir stated quite correctly that “Nothing dollarable is safe, however guarded.” Fortunately, we created places like National Parks and Wilderness Areas to both keep them safe and make them dollarable. But, the politics are such that the interests of a few obscenely wealthy people can make their short-term gains supersede the people’s long term benefits.

    • Submitted by C.A. Arneson on 06/26/2012 - 05:13 am.

      Pinchot and Muir may have agreed on sulfide mining

      Pinchot was more complicated, and Muir would have been my choice, particularly when it came to Hetch Hetchy. “But, he [Pinchot] also recognized that use of resources could quickly turn into abuse of resources, especially by exploitation for the few. He believed that destruction of forest resources was detrimental to the environment and to the many who depended on it. … he was one of the first “to protect national forest lands from the industrial powers who sought to destroy them completely.” (Society of American Foresters)

      I like to think he and Muir would have opposed sulfide mining today, that Pinchot would have been appalled by the massive destruction of water and forests … he was appalled by clear cutting … and he was always against corporate greed and exploitation. There’s a YouTube video that quotes the last few lines of his autobiography. Well worth hearing.

  7. Submitted by Scot Kasper on 02/22/2013 - 04:19 pm.

    How do we change this?

    Thank you for pouring your heart and soul into this. When can we gain enough momentum to change the 1872 law? The intent was to attract people to the West for mining purposes with few restrictions. The more things change, the more they remain the same. I’m encountering the same fight in Arizona, smaller scale but equal in passion. I’ve canoed Boundary Waters as a Boy Scout in 1973. I still relish the memories. All the best. Keep the faith. Keep fighting.

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