On Sept. 13, Rep. Rick Nolan joined 14 Democrats and 230 Republicans (one abstained) to vote yes on H.R. 761, the National Strategic and Critical Minerals Production Act of 2013. The bill is strategic and critical for the multinational mining companies seeking to mine on U.S. public lands.
The Obama administration, in a Statement of Administrative Policy, strongly opposed the bill as undermining and removing environmental safeguards for almost all types of hardrock mines on federal lands. According to the statement, “The legislation also undermines existing law safeguarding the multiple uses of public lands by placing mining interests above all other uses. This change has the potential to threaten hunting, fishing, recreation, and other activities that create jobs and sustain local economies across the country.”
H.R. 761 is the 2013 version of H.R. 4402, which was passed by the House in 2012. Prior to being elected, Nolan opposed H.R. 4402 because, “The fact is that the bill guts many environmental health and safety provisions for workers, for the community, for the environment.” Once elected, Nolan reversed his position and supported H.R. 761. Nolan was quoted in the Mesabi Daily News as saying, “… I’m comfortable voting for it. … it’s a start in streamlining and standardizing the permit process.”
In a response letter to constituents who had asked him to oppose the bill, Nolan stated, “We need look no further than the long-delayed projects at Essar, Minntac, KeeTac, and Mesabi Nugget to see that the permitting process as it exists is broken.” Unfortunately, what is broken is Nolan’s source of information on mine permitting.
Essar Steel is permitted, and construction has begun. The project has undergone several delays while the India-based company seeks additional financing. The Essar project has been subsidized by $65.9 million in state grants for construction of a railroad spur, electric lines, natural gas connections, road re-routing to assist in the project’s development (“A Monumental Day for Minnesota Steel,” Grand Rapids Herald Review, Sept. 10, 2008), and a $6.7 million loan from the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board (IRRRB) (“Essar Steel Minnesota gets another loan extension,” Duluth News Tribune, Dec. 14, 2012) – quite the opposite of regulatory delay.
Corps waits for mitigation plan
Minntac is proposing to expand its open-pit mine outside its current permit-to-mine boundary. This would impact 67 acres of wetlands and 4,000 linear feet of a stream, requiring an individual Section 404 Clean Water Act permit. The Army Corps of Engineers is waiting for an appropriate mitigation plan to be developed to compensate for the loss of valuable wetland and water resources. According to page 43 of the Environmental Assessment Worksheet [PDF] dated Aug. 1, 2012, approximately 45,000 linear feet (8.5 miles) of stream has already been removed as a result of past mining activity; stream loss has a cumulative effect on fish populations.
Meanwhile, Minntac is operating its plant and tailings basin on a wastewater discharge permit that was issued in 1987, despite the Clean Water Act requirement that permits be reviewed and renewed with necessary updates every five years. As a result, Minntac’s plant has no discharge limits for pollutants such as sulfates that are present in high levels. Proposed mine expansion would increase the height of tailings, with the potential for increased leaching into the watershed. Mr. Nolan is correct in saying that “the permitting system as it exists is broken,” thus allowing Minntac’s discharges into our waters.
KeeTac’s proposed expansion would significantly increase its mercury emissions, contrary to firmly established state and federal policy, and would continue and extend the plant’s discharge of sulfate at above the limit set by Minnesota law to protect wild rice. KeeTac is not in compliance with current regulations. The problem stems not from the permitting process but from the company’s failure to put forth a proposal that actually protects the environment in accord with legal standards.
The Mesabi Nugget plant was legislatively exempted from a full-scale environmental review in 2004, has never been able to meet water-quality standards, and was given a variance for its initial permit. Variances essentially rewrite the water-quality standards governing a water body, setting them at a level that a discharging plant can meet rather than the level that protects aquatic life or other uses. But even with the variance, Mesabi Nugget has been cited for violations of its permit. Environmental review for an expanded operation is on hold because the company needs to figure out how it is going to meet the laws that Nolan assures us will protect our water.
Mine would require public-land exchange
H.R. 761 would benefit PolyMet, whose proposed copper-nickel mine requires a public-land exchange in order to strip mine on protected federal lands. While taconite mine expansion continues to erode away the forests and wetlands of northeast Minnesota, proposed copper-nickel mining underlies what is now Superior National Forest. H.R. 761 would be a giveaway of public lands across the United States to multinational mining corporations, who would sell the metals on the global market, thus “undermining” any strategic and critical U.S. needs.
In his strategy to promote mining, Nolan states in the same constituent letter mentioned above, “I now urge my Republican colleagues in the House to reach across the aisle and engage the House, the Senate, and the White House, so together we can write a bill that’s good for mining. …” In response, Sens. Klobuchar and Franken have co-sponsored a companion bill, S. 1600, “The Critical Minerals Policy Act of 2013.” The bill directs the Secretary of the Interior to establish a list of 20 minerals critical to the American economy (U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Oct. 29, 2013). The bill orders federal agencies to avoid duplicating regulatory actions, prevent unnecessary paperwork and minimize “unnecessary delays” in mining projects, including exploration.
The political push to facilitate environmental permitting is continuing even after early October press releases confirmed that ERM (the company hired by PolyMet to develop a workable mine plan, concluded that PolyMet’s proposed mine would require at least 500 years of water treatment. (Duluth News Tribune, “PolyMet study: Water from mine site would need 500 years of treatment,” Oct. 5, 2013).
Supplemental draft EIS due Friday
PolyMet’s supplemental draft Environmental Impact Statement will be released for public comment on Friday. The length of the comment period will be announced at that time. Because sulfide mining has never been done previously in Minnesota, and because copper-nickel mineralization occurs in the headwaters of both Lake Superior and the Rainy River, environmental groups are requesting 180 days as extended review time. Public hearings are likely to held in late January in Aurora-Hoyt Lakes, Duluth, and the Twin Cities.
In 1939, Frank Capra directed a film entitled “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” The storyline centers around a rookie who is appointed to a vacancy in the U.S. Congress, and promptly collides with political corruption, but stands his ground. Those representing northeast Minnesota would do well to spend some time digging up this movie and reflecting on our democratic process rather than steamrolling the process in order to let mining companies dig up and pollute the watersheds of the Lake Superior region.
Elanne Palcich, a retired elementary school teacher, lives in Chisholm, Minn.
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