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Well-regulated sulfide mining can be done effectively

flambeau mine
The Kennecott copper mine in Ladysmith, Wis., 1997.

The dispute over mining Minnesota’s world-class mineral deposits is drawing big crowds to the public hearings on the new Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement (SDEIS ) on the proposed NorthMet Project. All those minerals — including copper, nickel, cobalt, gold and platinum — lie in a band, meandering from southwest to northeast, adjacent to the Archean granite of Minnesota’s Iron Range. They arrived a billion years ago in the magma during northern Minnesota’s active volcanic history. They are concentrated out of the magma by liquid sulfur, which acts as a “collector,” because these elements prefer the sulphide liquid to the magma by a factor of 1,000 times more.

One of the proposed Minnesota mining ventures is by PolyMet Mining Corp. of Canada. PolyMet’s group includes Swiss commodity and mining giant Glencore, which now owns 18 percent of PolyMet shares. Glencore and PolyMet will need to be financially accountable for shutdown and monitoring of the mine site after closure.

PolyMet’s project expects annual metal production of 39,000 tons of copper, 9,000 tons of nickel, 400 tons of cobalt, 22,000 ounces of platinum, 87,000 ounces of palladium and 13,800 ounces of gold from its lease. A 2009 714-page draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) on the company’s NorthMet Project was released by the Minnesota DNR and the U.S. Corps of Engineers. That DEIS notes that any effluent from the project will end 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 was generally positive about the project, and it suggested that if all of PolyMet’s commitments are met, there is no serious impact on the environment. The Environmental Protection Agency disagreed and called the draft statement inadequate.

General agreement with ’09 report

A new 1,000-plus page document has just been released by the MN DNR, Corps of Engineers, and U.S. Forest Service in response to EPA concerns.  The new SDEIS generally concurs with the 2009 report, stating, “The project is not predicted to result in any significant changes to groundwater and surface water flows when compared to existing conditions.”  The DEIS notes that federal, state, and local taxes from the project would total an estimated $80 million annually. During operations, wages and rents would be about $230 million per year, and $332 million would come from sale of the extracted minerals. 

The state of Minnesota owns more than 6,000 acres in the region, and Minnesota’s schools could collect at least $2 billion in royalties in the coming decades if these new mining projects proceed. This state property is known as “school trust lands.” Under the Minnesota Constitution, income from such lands is earmarked for the Permanent School Fund, which contributes about $60 per pupil to every school district. An analysis by the DNR projected that the school fund, with assets of $720 million, could more than triple in size with these new royalties over 20 to 25 years. 

Environmentalists are lined up in opposition to the mining, viewing the projects as a serious threat to water quality in the entire region, including the Boundary Waters. Project advocates include most area mayors who want those new, quality jobs on the depressed Iron Range.

The Flambeau Mine example

An example of an effective sulfide mine is the smaller Flambeau Mine at Ladysmith, Wis. Kennecott was the operator of this open-pit copper sulfide mine that operated 140 feet from the Flambeau River in the 1990s. During the mining operation, all of the surface area drainage and pit pumping water went into a treatment plant that successfully purified the water so it could be safely returned to the environment. Upon closure, to avoid long term acid rock drainage (ARD), the pit was backfilled with the waste rock and 30,000 tons of limestone to neutralize any ARD that forms. The Flambeau Mining Co. did not have any violations of its permits in construction, operation and closure in 1997.

In 2012, world energy demand burned more than 2 tons of coal, oil and natural gas for every person on the planet. This sent more than 30 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. World governments are forcing carbon-free renewable-energy programs, like wind turbines and more power lines. This is causing increased demand for nonferrous metals, of which the world now produces just 35 annual pounds per capita. Their price is rising as shortages develop. 

Many NorthMet Project opponents raise the question of whether the mining companies can be trusted to safeguard Minnesota’s environment. A better question could be: “Can we regulate them?” I suggest that we can. 

Rolf Westgard is a professional member of the Geological Society of America and is guest faculty on energy subjects for the University of Minnesota’s Lifelong Learning program. His 2013 fall-quarter class was “Minnesota’s Volcanic Geologic History; from Mountain Building to Minerals.”


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Comments (25)

  1. Submitted by mark wallek on 01/27/2014 - 08:45 am.

    Maybe it can be

    Maybe, in the best of all possible worlds sulfide mining could be done safely. That is not here. It will be done in a way that will ultimately lead to some significant loss to the environment because it will be profit that is the goal, not safe mining. Safe mining would not be profitable.

  2. Submitted by rolf westgard on 01/27/2014 - 09:50 am.

    Safe mining and safe fracking

    Safe fracking is also possible if money is spent making sure the well is properly cased. That is why those wells cost several million $ each, and a hundred thousand such wells have not harmed groundwater since the process b egan in the Barnett Shale near fort Worth.
    The injection water with mostly sand and soap does not have harmful chemicals. The oil and gas encountered does release nasty stuff like benzene, so the problem is on the way back up. Proper casing protects the ground water.
    Safe mining in Minnesota will be profitable, which is why there is so much interest. There is gold in “that there” strata.

  3. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 01/27/2014 - 11:31 am.

    “Can we regulate them?”

    Mr. Westgard states, “…The Flambeau Mining Co. did not have any violations of its permits”. Right. So there must not have been any negative consequences, if the company didn’t violate its permits, right ?

    No, that would be wrong: “The mining company performed all reclamation required by law, but despite their efforts, the mine continues to pollute.” Also, “The unpredictability observed in copper, iron, and manganese concentrations indicates that important assumptions were missing in original modeling…”, (Chambers, D. M. and K. Zamzow. 2009. Report on Groundwater and Surface Water Contamination at the Flambeau Mine. Center for Science in Public Participation.)

    This shows that the NorthMet SDEIS assurance that future water quality standards will protect us after PolyMet is long gone from the scene, is a bogus assurance.

    Mr. Westgard’s implication that by regulating a mining company’s activities, we can also control and regulate the future consequences of those activities, is a FALLACY.

    For more information than this mining cheerleader cares to reveal in this column and in his other published comments on the issue, see and its “4 Simple Questions” and its further information on the PolyMet proposal.

    On that same site, you can read about flaws in the water model upon which the DEIS and related studies are based.

    While you’re at it, you might also take a peek at to find out what Mr. Westgard has chosen to leave out of his comments about the Ladysmith mine in Wisconsin. For example, he makes no mention of the groundwater pollution taking place, which was not predicted in the environmental impact studies. The NorthMet DEIS and SDEIS also predict no concerns with groundwater pollution, just as was assumed in the case of the Flambeau mine.

    Mr. Westgard has recently dismissed the public’s concerns with a 500 year (or more) mitigation and maintenance plan with: “Most of this 500 year hysteria is not justified.” Since this 500 year warning comes from the SDEIS itself, are ITS authors also hysterical ?

  4. Submitted by Brian Nelson on 01/27/2014 - 11:38 am.

    Rolf, do yo have another example…?

    The Flambeau mine is only 1% the size of the proposed NorthMet mine and Flambeau did not have an onsite processing facility, tailings storage, as well as storage of materials resulting from reverse osmosis and nano-filtration systems. Since the mined rock was shipped by rail to Canada for processing, this does not seem to be a very accurate comparison. In another regard, this is especially concerning since the SDEIS also only says the site will be prepared for 100 year storms but not the 500 year category that wiped out Jay Cooke State Park in 2012. Again, with all of the extras present at the NorthMet site I would like to see a better comparison. This also does very little to address the many concerns raised by C. A. Arneson’s MinnPost piece last week.

  5. Submitted by Jon Lord on 01/27/2014 - 11:50 am.


    Who would ‘we’ hold responsible if it turns out that safe mining practices are ignored? Maybe they should put up a failure fund where the money they will make first goes into an untouchable account until it’s certain there will be no harm to the environment. The cost of cleanup should be assured first. Same with fracking.

    • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 01/27/2014 - 12:10 pm.

      One kind of trouble with a “failure fund”,…

      …well-meaning though it be, is this: HOW MUCH ?

      To accurately fund intervention, restoration, and mitigation efforts implies you know the nature of damage and its scale.

      But the SDEIS itself admits that the ACTUAL water quality issues (and of course the effort and expense required) are going to arise in reality, NOT from their model. So even if you fully fund remediation based on the model, if the model is wrong, you’re screwed.

      And since remediation will be required (again, based on modeling in the SDEIS) for 500 years, how in the heck are you going to estimate THAT cost, or even determine who is going to be responsible to execute it, when hardly any human institutions have ever lasted that long ?

      For how inaccurate the mining modeling was in the case of the Ladysmith, WI mine the author here touts as an example, see the links at my post above.

    • Submitted by Jon Lord on 02/01/2014 - 08:31 am.


      I had wrote ‘catastrophic failure’ fund, not simply a failure fund? Anyway by determining, as much as possible, the cost of the mining itself, the cost of cleanup, as much as possible, the cost in terms of recreation, tourism and those living in the areas that would be affected, and then double the amount the mining company has determined they would make from the mining of the minerals in question. If the mining company is sure it can prevent harm to the environment a company with it’s assets should be able to put up that kind of money. Whether it’s willing to is another question.

  6. Submitted by Dan Anderson on 01/27/2014 - 12:23 pm.

    While the Flambeau mine site is not an unreasonable example; I don’t think the context of the years of debate locally are fully represented in the piece. I attented a gathering in Ashland, WI in the 90’s where Roscoe Churchhill spoke. How the local government was treated in Ladysmith by the State of Wisconsin and the mining companies was outragous.

    I’m affaid the State of Minnesota and local residents around the proposed mine site in northern Minnesota have bought into claims of jobs, revenue etc. Most mining subsidiaries go out of business at some point in the future and sufide waste rock and risks of contamination become a problem for the state where sited. Abandon sufide mining sites out west are an on going disaster. While not the case here, mining patents and claims in western lands are still governed by laws written in 1876. Minnesotan’s are ignoring the history of hard rock mining.

  7. Submitted by James Hamilton on 01/27/2014 - 12:25 pm.

    More on Mr. Westgard

    Mr. Westgard is a prolific writer, whose work I’ve encountered many times over the years, always accompanied by mention of his membership in the Geological Society of America and his participation in the University of Minnesota’s Lifelong Learning program. Until today, I have been unable to find any significant information on his education and training or work experience, other than that he had been employed by 3M for many years. He has publicly refused to provide his credentials on various occasions and in various fora.

    Today, I learned that he studied geology and history at Delta College and the University of Michigan. After serving in the Army, he received an MBA from Stanford. In his own words, “After retiring from 3M, I continued as a consultant for the company, working on programs with the Department of Energy. Some of those programs involved nuclear weapons development and the disposal of nuclear waste. I now use my education and work knowledge to teach classes on energy for the U of MN Lifelong Learning program.”

    Given his positions on matters environmental, one might assume that his political leanings are to the right. That may be, but he appears to have been a regular contributor to DFL politicians over the years, including substantial contributions in 2008.

    I still know little about Mr. Westgard’s technical qualifications to opine on matters ranging from alternative energy sources to nuclear power and now mining. As best I can determine his technical training appears to be limited. His public record contains no information from which one could conclude that his opinion in this area is any more informed than that of anyone else capable of reading the record. Certainly, his unexplained conclusions bear further scrutiny. His use of the Flambeau mine experience may or may not be germane. We are not given any basis for accepting his comparison of the Flambeau operation to that proposed by Polymet.

    Mr. Westgard’s apparent confidence in the trust which can be placed in corporate entities may be based in his own long association with one of Minnesota’s oldest multinationals, 3M. Some of his assertions, however, beg for clarification. For example, the mere fact that Glencore owns an 18% stake in Polymet does not mean that Glencore and its assets can or will be held accountable for clean-up, should that be necessary. In fact, Polymet is a publicly traded corporation. Absent some special undertaking on Glencore’s part, there is no reason to believe that its exposure here in any way exceeds its investment in Polymet.

    I am not qualified to judge whether the Polymet operation should proceed and, if so, under what conditions. Like the overwhelming majority of Minnesotans, I must rely on the opinions of those more qualified to identify the risks faced, the technology that can be brought to bear and the financial precautions which must be taken. I can, however, insist that those who do choose to opine on the subject provide readers with their credentials and that their publishers provide at least some basis on which to assess their biases. Both Mr. Westgard and Minnpost have failed in this regard.

  8. Submitted by rolf westgard on 01/27/2014 - 12:54 pm.

    Assurance guarantee by Polymet and Twin Metals.

    Both projects need to post substantial bonds to assure continued monitoring right up to closure. Both projects have a large multi-billion partner, so should be able to perform.
    I was recently at the Twin Metals geology center, and I didn’t see anyone with a pitchfork and horns. There were just dedicated Americans planning to do the job right. Relax people, the dirt is going to fly.

  9. Submitted by rolf westgard on 01/27/2014 - 01:01 pm.

    Nuisance lawsuits on Flambeau Mine

    Various lawsuits against Kennecott and others regarding the Flambeau Mine failed.
    Typical rulings:

    Seventh Circuit Court rules in favor of Flambeau Mining Company, holding that Flambeau fully complied with the Clean Water Act.

    Judge Finds Flambeau Mining Co Committed to “Protection of the Environment and the Preservation of Water Quality – July 25 2012

  10. Submitted by Charles Holtman on 01/27/2014 - 01:47 pm.

    “World energy demand” (next-to-last paragraph)

    Is not an independent variable.

  11. Submitted by Eric Snyder on 01/27/2014 - 01:52 pm.

    Fracking is your friend

    Westgard writes in a comment above that “a hundred thousand wells have not harmed groundwater since the process began in the Barnett Shale near fort Worth.”

    Oh really?

    According to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA in July of 2013 (!):

    “Robert Jackson, a chemical engineer at Duke University, found methane in 115 of 141 shallow, residential drinking-water wells. The methane concentration in homes less than one mile from a fracking well was six times higher than the concentration in homes farther away. Isotopes and traces of ethane in the methane indicated that the gas was not created by microorganisms living in groundwater but by heat and pressure thousands of feet down in the Marcellus Shale, which is where companies fracture rock to release gas that rises up a well shaft.”

    Older studies have found a direct link between fracking and groundwater contamination:

    Or, “4 states confirm water pollution from drilling”

    “In April 2011, near Towanda, Pa., seven families were evacuated after about 10,000 gallons of wastewater contaminated an agricultural field and a stream that flows into the Susquehanna River, the result of an equipment failure…”
    “A ProPublica investigation in 2009 revealed methane contamination was widespread in drinking water in areas around fracking operations in Colorado, Texas, Wyoming, and Pennsylvania.”
    “An investigation by New York Times reporter Ian Urbina, based upon thousands of unreported EPA documents and a confidential study by the natural gas industry, concluded, “Radioactivity in drilling waste cannot be fully diluted in rivers and other waterways.” Urbina learned that wastewater from fracking operations was about 100 times more toxic than federal drinking water standards; 15 wells had readings about 1,000 times higher than standards.”

    “Bad news for pregnant women near fracking. Study shows toxins linked to heart defects [in children and fetuses]”

    I found these articles in about…2-3 minutes.

    When it comes to reckless and dangerous corporate profiteering that jeopardizes public health, i.e., “jobs,” the little people don’t count, do they Rolf?

  12. Submitted by rolf westgard on 01/27/2014 - 03:20 pm.

    Methane in water wells

    Methane occurs naturally and some water wells will hit it. That’s the case in the “flaming faucets” in the recent Hollywood movie Gasland. They had nothing to do with fracking.
    If you get radioactivity, you may have identified a profitable uranium deposit. Irrational fear of radioactivity has prevented more non emitting nuclear plants from being built. The Daily Kos and truth-out are not exactly solid science sources.
    If fracking is a serious problem, the state can stop it. That is not happening, and fracking continues apace.
    I’ll be talking to Mr Hamilton when I want my biography published. He seems to have made a good start. but lets stick to the issues. Especially the facts and figures raised in my article.

    • Submitted by Eric Snyder on 01/27/2014 - 04:09 pm.

      Two points

      Fallacy 1: Damning the source while refusing to deal with the arguments and evidence presented:

      “The Daily Kos and truth-out are not exactly solid science sources.”

      Fallacy 2: Circular reasoning:

      “If fracking is a serious problem, the state can stop it. That is not happening, and fracking continues apace.”

      This presupposes that adequate testing is being done (which is not), that laws are adequate to protect the public (which is highly questionable, given corruption of environmental regulation by the fossil fuel industry).

      I can see why you want to “stick to the issues.”

  13. Submitted by Jim Nessa on 01/27/2014 - 09:11 pm.

    Mining clean up

    I feel that any company which accepts the copper, nickel, and other metals from mining in Minnesota must accept the sulfur from the mines as well.

    Mr. Westgard has suggested that the operators of the mine will use reverse osmosis to clean waste water before it is discharged back to the creeks and rivers. Of course the cleaning will result in concentrated levels of sulfate solutions discharged from the cleaning processes. Mr. Westgard indicates that a reasonable disposal of these sulfate solutions would be to dump them in a pit along with limestone, and cover the whole mess up with waste rock.

    This is not acceptable. The sulfate solutions resulting from the mining must not be returned to the Minnesota environment. I suggest that while they are still in a concentrated form, that they be treated with limestone to form gypsum. The gypsum should be shipped along with the profits from the mining to Canada and Switzerland to help their wall board manufacturing industries.

    • Submitted by C.A. Arneson on 01/30/2014 - 11:30 pm.

      Remember the Chinese drywall problems several years ago?

      PolyMet representatives have long claimed that the gypsum would be benign, “just like wallboard,” as they similarly reported at a Senate hearing no less. There is a two fold problem with their feel-good rhetoric: first, limestone treatment would likely release any arsenic that is present (and arsenic is present); and any drywall produced would likely contain too much sulfur to be used in homes or PolyMet’s management would be promoting it as a saleable product right now instead of sending it to a lined waste facility.

  14. Submitted by rolf westgard on 01/28/2014 - 01:48 am.

    Good idea, Jim

    But Switzerland will already have a lot of the profits as Swiss Giant, Glencore, is a major partner in the Polymett project.
    It is time for the dirt to fly.

  15. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 01/29/2014 - 04:17 pm.


    Montana figures that with all the environmental cleanup from their mining industry that it would have been cheaper to simply buy the ore from somewhere else and give it away.

    Long term we’ll get more jobs and more income from tourism than we will from a couple of years of mining. It’s time to let the dirt sit.

  16. Submitted by C.A. Arneson on 01/29/2014 - 06:53 pm.

    I would like to reiterate and expand on what Brian Nelson said concerning Flambeau. Flambeau is the only example PolyMet supporters have been able to find, claiming it is an example of a successful sulfide mine. They just continually forget to mention that Flambeau essentially had no waste.

    Flambeau was basically a big quarry. The pit was 35 acres in size. It was a very localized deposit, not disseminated. There was no processing; they direct shipped the ore to Canada (hence the tailings were left in Canada). No waste to speak of at the mine site, unlike the 99% waste of PolyMet. What was buried on site at Flambeau was rock that had to be dug out around the edge of the pit so the pit was large enough to operate machinery inside and for access (rather like when the basement to a home is dug, the hole ends up being a little bigger). This small amount of waste rock was discarded and piled on site to be buried in the pit under the overburden that was also replaced at the end of mining. (In less than three years the piled waste rock was leaching acid.) Flambeau was a massive sulphide ore body and if the processing waste had been left at the mine site, instead of in Canada, it would have been a massive problem. There was no tailings basin at Flambeau!

    According to a source, “Flambeau was also backfilled and then reclaimed; something extremely unusual for open pit mining due to the costs and scale. Flambeau was both small and rich enough to allow backfilling to take place. Notably, Kennecott initially wanted to simply let the pit flood (like every other open pit miner) and argued that the lake that would be formed would become meromictic (meaning it wouldn’t turn over seasonally like other lakes here). The problem with lakes turning over is that the process introduces oxygen to the wastes and moves the contaminant column around. Kennecott wanted a lake that wouldn’t do that to contain any contamination. [Although wave action also introduces oxygen] Plus, the waste rock that ended up in the pit was known to be acid-producing so they would have had an above ground waste pile with long-term issues. With both issues at hand, they had to switch to backfilling that took advantage of our generous groundwater sacrifice law for mining. They are/were allowed to pollute groundwater up to 1200 feet from the boundary of the site without having to remediate.”

    This link is also an excellent source of information on Flambeau.

  17. Submitted by tiffany vanvorken on 02/02/2014 - 11:12 am.


    God gave us the minerals to use. Let the mining begin.

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