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State rushes to judgment on environmental safety of sulfide mining

CC/Flickr/steve conry
The state downplays risks to places like the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness posed by sulfide mining.

On my mother’s bookshelf rests a yellowing old cookbook, a fundraiser item for the women’s circle in her childhood Presbyterian church. “Predestined to Be Good.”  Well, perhaps that was a bit of a hasty determination. A flip through the pages reveals some out-right scary recipes. Lime and lemon Jell-O in chicken salad?

Betsy Daub
Betsy Daub

The Minnesota government is suffering from the same rush to judgment in its response to proposed sulfide mining projects in the state. State agency staff with oversight responsibility have prematurely declared mine projects to be environmentally safe before seeing proof and despite the industry’s long and perfect track record of polluting lakes, rivers and streams everywhere sulfide mining has been done. This is not a recipe for making sure the same thing won’t happen here.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) recently worked with PolyMet Mining Company to examine possible environmental impacts for the company’s proposal, which would be Minnesota’s first sulfide mine. In 2009, the DNR decided the draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) had thoroughly analyzed the potential impacts and mitigation measures to deal with pollution. It released the draft EIS for public review. But the draft EIS was a disaster. Rush to judgment #1.

The DNR and PolyMet proposed mine design would cause 2,000 years of water pollution into surrounding streams and rivers without a plan to deal with it (or pay for it). It would destroy or harm 1,600 acres of high quality wetlands without adequately mitigating those impacts. The proposal failed to collect enough information to understand the risks, failed to adequately measure the extent of likely impacts, and failed to sufficiently explore alternative designs to prevent pollution to surrounding waters.

EPA gave project an ‘F’

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was alarmed and gave the project its lowest rating of “Environmentally Unsatisfactory-Inadequate.” An unequivocal “F.”  The DNR and industry, red-faced, went back to work to revise the EIS, and they’ve been at work for nearly three years trying to figure out how to get it right. So far, Minnesotans have not seen a plan that shows that to be possible.

That hasn’t stopped Minnesota’s government from declaring the project safe. Despite the decidedly unsafe first proposal, the track record of pollution and taxpayer liability elsewhere, and an obligation to evaluate the facts in an unbiased fashion, Minnesota’s DNR is already publicly stating that this type of mining can be done right.

In the July-August 2012 edition of the Minnesota Conservation Volunteer, then head of the DNR’s Division of Lands and Minerals Larry Kramka, noted, “If we have this vast resource here, if we know we can do it the right way, aren’t we somewhat obliged to mine it here?” How, one must wonder, does he already know we can do it right?  Rush to judgment #2.

Serious risks downplayed

In November, Minnesota’s Environmental Quality Board released “Minnesota’s Environmental and Energy Report Card” (PDF), written with input from eight state agencies, including the DNR and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. The report is being distributed at a series of public meetings being held across the state called the “Environmental Congress.” Under a section entitled “Managing our Minerals and Mines,” our state government makes this pronouncement about sulfide mining: “With advances in processing technology and environmental impact mitigation, extraction is now economically and environmentally viable.”  Rush to judgment #3.

These statements reveal a predetermined opinion that downplays real, serious and long-lasting risks to places like the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Lake Superior, as well as to our pocketbooks if taxpayers get left paying for the clean-up. Our state agencies should objectively analyze mine proposals and review all the facts before making determinations.

With so much at stake, we need confidence in the decisions these agencies will make. Calling Jell-O chicken salad “good” does not make it good, nor does it instill confidence about the cooks.

Betsy Daub is the policy director at the non-profit Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness.


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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by mark wallek on 01/04/2013 - 09:28 am.

    Major grease on wheel of industry

    With the sort of money associated with sulfide mining, you can bet some major payola is flowing. Together with the sand mining we could only hope for some fracking in the state as well, just to assure a continued environmental degradation. Because anyone who thinks sulfide mining is going to be good for anything but some few individuals’ pocketbooks is a dreamer.

  2. Submitted by Gary Clements on 01/04/2013 - 04:07 pm.

    “Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and aesthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. A thing is right when it tends to perserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”
    ― Aldo Leopold

    The state of Minnesota, through its elected and appointed officials, seems bent on examining the mining of sulfide ores ONLY through the eyes of what is economically expedient. Or, as Mr. Wallek says, some major payola is flowing, probably in the form of promised campaign funding. Write / call your legislators and Governor Dayton. Demand a Financial Assurances bill that requires the mining companies to put up bonded money ahead of time for ALL potential cleanup. If we don’t get that, then WE taxpayers will be holding the bag.
    There’s a reason the mining companies have fought against such a bill for 4 years now.
    It’s because they know they can’t do this safely.

  3. Submitted by Joe Musich on 01/04/2013 - 09:48 pm.


    Northern legislators have to step against this nonsense. Where is Nolan ? The bulk of the northlivers do not seem to understand the threat their lives and to their health. But maybe it’s Darwinism at work those got it left in order to survive. Can the co dependency be broken ?

  4. Submitted by James Mathewson on 01/06/2013 - 08:56 pm.

    Sulfide mining has rarely been done without a major spill

    Examples dot the earth of toxic spills from sulfide mining that spoil hundreds of square miles of country. In almost every case, the tailing pool breached its levee. The one place where that has not happened is in Butte Montana, where a permanent pool of battery acid sits awaiting a natural disaster. One rain like we had last summer in the Duluth area would have caused a breach in the proposed containment pool that would have poisoned the watershed of the Boundary Waters. Fortunately, we have the EPA to keep local government in check. Like Alaskans fighting the Pebble mine, were it not for the EPA, this project would be on track for a go-live data of 2015. Now, like Pebble, it is postponed indefinitely. But we should all write the Governor and our state legislators to postpone it permanently. It’s not just our enjoyment that’s at stake, but the livelihoods of thousands of outfitters and others who rely on tourism to survive.

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