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The Minnesotan’s guide to PolyMet’s top 10 favorite talking points
A company projection of the NorthMet mine at year 11.

Public debate on the nonferrous mining issue in Minnesota is heated, and will continue to be. Speaking generally, proponents of the current Glencore/PolyMet proposal assert that the value of jobs and tax revenue from the project would be greater than costs. Opponents of the proposal believe that various impacts on Minnesota would outweigh predicted benefits. This is a massively important issue which goes to the very future of our state and economy. In other words, big stuff.

JT Haines

Of course, it’s not always easy to talk about big stuff. So, in the meantime, I find we’re often sorting through talking points, stuff that merely nips at the true weight of the moment, and much of it straight out of the proverbial brochure. So, I give you this Minnesotan’s Guide to PolyMet’s Top 10 Favorite Talking Points:

  1. “Calling it sulfide mining is misleading. It is copper-nickel mining that we are proposing.” First, a glossary of sorts for the uninitiated: It’s “copper-nickel” or “precious metal mining” if you want to emphasize the shiny stuff that would be sold into international markets. It’s “sulfide mining” if you want to emphasize the vast majority of material (sulfide ore) that would actually be mined, and left behind, in order to get the shiny stuff out of Minnesota. And it’s “nonferrous” mining if you want to avoid the whole conversation altogether. The term “nonferrous” mining does also helpfully highlight that this type of mining is different — and potentially far more dangerous – than the “ferrous” (iron ore) mining that has been taking place in Minnesota for over 100 years.
  2. “If it isn’t grown it’s mined”; there is copper in your car/phone/wind turbine. Tom Rukavina stood in front of the DNR public hearing in St. Paul last month with a brown paper bag and suggested that those opposed to PolyMet should turn over their keys and phones [MPR]. Easy political points of this sort may be available for Rukavina. But his suggestion that those who use metals (i.e., live in society) are disqualified from asserting political viewpoints as to how we should manage such public resources is flawed. If you use a stove you can oppose fracking. If you take baths, you can oppose the drying up of one of Hibbing’s three city wells by Hibbing Taconite [Strib]. Minnesotans understand that there are metals in consumer goods. But they also wonder, if that’s what this is about, then how much metal do we need?
  3. It’s 2014, technology is improved. There is a problem with this argument, and that is this: It’s true. In fact, at this juncture in history it’s almost a truism. Which makes the talking point all the more problematic, for it has also been true every single other time a mining company has put it forward from the beginning of time and assuredly into the future. There is a powerful incentive to believe that this time it will be OK. But there’s much hubris there too. Fool me twice?
  4. It is hypocrisy to oppose this project in Minnesota, because Third World. Evidently Glencore — international marauder Glencore [BBC] — now cares about Guatemalans, Namibians, and Indonesians. As a producer on the documentary film Gold Fever, I have spent significant time in a Guatemalan community that contains a Canadian nonferrous mine. From my interactions there, I believe that, yes, our governments and companies should be accountable for the harms they are perpetrating in Guatemala and elsewhere. And I believe that my friends in Guatemala would be saddened to learn that such unaccountability is being used to divide working-class brothers and sisters in Minnesota as well. Without appropriate nuance and context on this talking point — which in no way currently exists in our Minnesota conversation — we should be embarrassed to carry it forward on behalf of a borderless extractor. Or, better yet, let’s take up the issue of exploitation and oppression in the Global South in earnest.
  5. “Trust the agencies.” “You’re not an environmental engineer.” “Let the process work.” First, mining companies love to lean on the process with one hand while calling for respect of it with the other. They practically invented the strategy. (If you doubt it, ask the DNR or governor if they’ve received any pressure on this issue during the process, or observe the company’s many advertisements currently festooning the state high-school hockey tournament.) But in any event, I really hope it is obvious that farmers, librarians, native leaders, union reps, poets, and your grandma have a lot to say about this project on subjects that include but are very much not limited to science, whatever the current status of the SDEIS. The “trust the process” argument is strategic, meant to avail itself of the human tendency to succumb to inertia. So, if you oppose the project, don’t believe the hype. (Minor digression: Industry reps made a similar argument before the Minnesota Executive Council when mineral leases were up for approval, which was essentially this: “Don’t worry about this now, worry about it later at permitting.” And if and when we reach the permitting stage, look for the following favorite talking point to gain in prevalence …)
  6. “This has been in process for nearly 10 years; enough is enough!” The review process for a proposal like this one is lengthy. And many are, therefore, quite understandably, impatient. What does not follow, though, is that a company (or agency) at some point reaches a magic amount of time and money spent, at which point it becomes necessary to move it forward … because of time and money. Perhaps PolyMet’s significant time spent more appropriately reflects the volatility of the proposal and is therefore just as good a reason to scrap the whole thing. (Many issues remain regarding the current proposal, including concerning water modeling [Ely Timberjay].) Or, perhaps the amount of time spent is simply irrelevant. I’d be satisfied with that, and most reasonable proponents do seem to publicly agree. But, privately, the talking point persists.
  7. “Minnesota has the toughest regulations” (and therefore we should mine here). This is a variant of a few of the above. I haven’t really heard of anyone putting together some sort of research to actually back up the statement, but then again, who cares. If our regulations are tough, then good. Let us develop our tradition of protecting clean air and water in the face of pressure to sell. PolyMet’s goal isn’t to mine somewhere with tough regs; its goal is to mine (and undermine regs as it sees fit).
  8. People oppose this project because … canoes (and that’s not legitimate). Of course it’s not illegitimate to advocate in favor of natural spaces, although I understand why it’s easy to suggest that canoes are less important than people’s livelihoods. The canoe talking point, like many of the others, taps into a real tension involving legitimate and historical regional issues that have yet to be satisfactorily addressed. As such, it is effective if one’s goal is mainly to dampen a conversation, but otherwise it is mostly divisive. For many, “canoes” are not just about recreation; they represent greater connection to place. They help remind us of the beauty of our state, and I think help produce a better chance that we will manage our resources well. (I hesitate to throw around a word like “spiritual,” but yeah, man, it’s spiritual.) And it’s not just about lakes — wetlands, watersheds, habitats and the survival of species are also on the minds of the people to whom the “canoe” tag has been derisively attached.
  9. Project opponents are “environmentalists,” “antis,” “anti-mining,” “cidiots” and “metrocrats.” You know you’re in a healthy conversation when these start coming out. First of all, it’s pretty unfair to call people who disagree with you “environmentalists” – we all live here. We all have a legitimate stake. And as Bob Tammen has reasonably pointed out, attacks like these are regularly levied at the very “cidiots” who have been voting pro-worker for years. In any event, I’m not against this project because I’m anti-mining or because I currently live in the city. (For what it’s worth, I grew up down the street from Minntac in Mt Iron. My memories of the Range are fond ones of swimming in the pit and being awestruck at Ironworld.) I’m against this project because I’m anti-Glencore/PolyMet. And because I love Minnesota.
  10. If not this, then what? Are you going to care about the Range once this project goes away? So, fair point. We can’t request solidarity in the face of Glencore/PolyMet, and then abandon one another when it comes to finding better alternatives for much needed jobs. I am willing to own that. And, it’s a good segue.

Glencore/PolyMet’s goal isn’t a safe and clean environment. It isn’t to power wind turbines. It’s not to help Guatemalans. And its goal isn’t a sustainable future for the good communities of the Iron Range. It is to make massive amounts of short-term money — money for giant corporate stockholders who don’t live in Virginia, Hibbing or Hoyt Lakes. The project itself would be, in a regrettably limited sense, about jobs, but I think we would do well to cease with the suggestion that for the transnational corporation it’s about anything more than profit.

Meanwhile, the planet is warming, resources are under increasing duress, and species including our own are threatened. I truly believe that is the type of moment we’re in. (In other words, Glencore/PolyMet, your timing stinks.) So let’s have an authentic conversation about whether we actually need more copper than has already been mined, or whether using recycled or smaller amounts of copper and other materials is in order. Let’s discuss whether we need to own fewer cars and cell phones in Minnesota, or whether we really do need mining here in order to more safely power the future. And if we determine that we must mine, let’s do so as Minnesotans and decide for ourselves the when, where, how, and by whom.

While challenging perhaps beyond any of our experience, I believe these to be the conversations which stand the best chance of bringing Minnesotans back together. Not talking points from the corporate brochure.

This commentary was written by St. Paul-based writer, producer and attorney JT Haines, and originally published at Why the Attitude. Follow @JT_Haines.


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Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by James Hamilton on 03/10/2014 - 02:28 pm.

    Is there anyone

    who hasn’t already made up their mind about whether on-ferrous open pit mining can be conducted in this area without causing an unacceptable level of harm to the environment? it seems not.

    We won’t answer any of the global questions raised here by Mr. Haines. We’re not capable of doing anything more than voicing a collective opinion on the subject and even that seems an impossible task, given the numbers who’ve burrowed into the trenches on both sides of this question.

    As someone who advocated for the creation of BWCA in the 1970’s, I feel almost heretical suggesting that there might be such a thing as an acceptable level of harm. But the fact is that there is. We make these judgments every day in the products we choose to buy and the manner in which we use them, in the temperatures we set on our home and offce thermostats, the fuels we use and the amount we consume.

    A friend in San Francisco reminded me not long ago that attempting to restore an area to the status quo of an era gone by is an arbitrary effort. Flora and fauna come and go, erased or introduced by both human and non-human forces.

    The fact is that northeastern Minnesota will change over time, whether we wish it to or not. We simply don’t know what those changes will be, how they will come to be or whether they will suit our sensibilities or not.

    This is not to suggest that we should simply proceed with non-ferrous open pit mining in a sensitive area. I do suggest that attempting to lock conditions in place as they are is an impossible task and that there may be some acceptable degree of impairment over the short and longer term.

    • Submitted by Lance Groth on 03/10/2014 - 03:24 pm.


      “that there may be some acceptable degree of impairment over the short and longer term.”

      The problem with that line of reasoning is that *everything we do*, all 7.2 billion of us, results in incremental damage. All these incremental damages add up to major damage. The natural environment has already been seriously degraded and the biosphere is under assault to a degree unprecedented since the last asteroid strike or supervolcano eruption; we are in the midst of another Great Extinction event. So saying, “well, a little more is ok”, is not ok.

      A line has to be drawn somewhere, or else we accept that the world must be permanently damaged to accommodate our comfort, and that there can be no more nature, just some scattered park reserves that are less than they were. We will never arrive at a new model for how we conduct ourselves on this planet as long as we just keep going along with the old model.

      “Flora and fauna come and go, erased or introduced by both human and non-human forces. ” This I view as a false argument. The fact that ecosystems change and species go extinct through non-human processes is not a justification for humans to further trash the biosphere that sustains us. AGW denialists love that argument; “climate changes all the time, so we don’t need to control our behavior.” Nature is not cognizant; we are, and need to take responsibility for what we do.

      It would be one thing if Minnesota’s ore deposits were critical to the continuance of modern technical society. They are not. They are not even in the top 10 in terms of recoverable metals. Society will go along just fine without Minnesota’s ore; no one will have to give up their favorite devices, Rep. Rukavina not withstanding (and he should be ashamed to engage in such false and silly theatrics). Therefore let us draw the line here in Minnesota. Others may sacrifice their environment if they choose to; we don’t have to here.

      We are alive at a time that is a crisis point in history that offers both hope and a warning. The old model is one of endless consumption, depletion of natural resources, degradation of the biosphere, waste as a way of life; a throw-away culture writ globally. We can choose to find a new way, or resign ourselves to handing our descendants a degraded and polluted world, less beautiful and beneficent than we have known, and far more grim. How can any amount of money compensate for that?

      I know where I stand.

      • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 03/10/2014 - 04:55 pm.

        Well, Crap

        Lance, unfortunately you said what I was going to say and did it in a much more thorough and articulate manner. Mainly that just because the environment will change over time does not mean we need to change it wholesale in the span of twenty years.

        Thank you for your post.

        • Submitted by Lance Groth on 03/10/2014 - 06:17 pm.

          Let’s hope …

          … there are enough who agree with us. I’m afraid I’m pessimistic, as big money almost always wins, but maybe this time will be different.

      • Submitted by Bruce Pomerantz on 03/10/2014 - 10:30 pm.

        Yes, the environment changes and

        in ways that we cannot anticipate. Ground and rock are fluid at a geological pace. An earthquake could occur. Below ground and above ground water may shift direction. Rising temperatures may directly or indirectly cause the topography to alter. Changing flora and fauna may destabilize the landscape. A shift someplace else may cause a dynamic change where the sulfide mining will occur. Safeguards put in place for today’s conditions will not necessarily be adequate for future environmental changes and remedies for the new conditions may not exist.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 03/10/2014 - 06:44 pm.

    It’s about the money

    It’s not about the environment, it’s not about jobs, it’s not about the long-term viability of the project, or its benefits to Minnesota and its citizens.

    This is about money. Lots and lots and lots of money. Not for Minnesotans – the pay earned by the miners is very nearly pocket change – but for PolyMet shareholders.

    If PolyMet could make the same amount of money by not sinking a single rhetorical shovel into the north woods, without hiring a single miner, without having to conduct any sort of environmental review, they would do so in a heartbeat. Let it also be said that, if PolyMet could make the same amount of money without doing any damage to the environment, either regionally or locally, they would do THAT in a heartbeat, as well. Their goal is profit. The metal, the mine, every part of the operation is secondary to profit. Mining is expensive. Slavery has been outlawed. They can’t just kidnap people and force them to work in the mine(s), they have to pay them, and because it’s hard and often dangerous work, they have to pay them pretty well. Even worse, from PolyMet’s point of view, those workers are likely to be unionized, so the company will have to deal with a union and work rules and seniority and public pay scales and all the other stuff that undermines the company’s ability to treat the mining enterprise as a feudal estate wherein the company’s word may never be challenged.

    There has to be housing. If it’s not available, the company has to find a way to make it so. There has to be a whole bunch of other “urban” stuff – paved roads, more stores with merchandise, more medical and dental care, maybe more schools for the children of the workers who will come for the jobs, as well as for the people already living in the area, etc.

    PolyMet doesn’t want ANY of that aggravation and expense, and will work hard with their existing personnel to put as much of that burden as they can possibly manage on state and local governments and taxing authorities. Going to all this trouble is only worthwhile if the money that PolyMet expects to get in return is a mind-boggling sum. They hope to acquire that sum in a fairly short period of time. Then, if things get too difficult or expensive after the ore has been extracted, the company can simply declare bankruptcy, and because the parent company isn’t even an American one, declaring bankruptcy may well be easier, and have fewer negative consequences, than if the company *were* American. Then they walk away, and the former miners (and their former legislative representative) will get to deal with the environmental consequences for the next few centuries. Don’t worry, the shareholders of PolyMet and their descendants will be far, far away, in most cases completely unaware of whatever consequences might result from the mine’s operations.

    Do we need metals? Absolutely! Has mining technology improved? Absolutely! Does that need, and do those technological improvements, mean that environmental concerns amount to no more than obstructionism? Of course not.

    A worthwhile question to ask a PolyMet representative – and perhaps Mr. Rukavina – is this: What’s the alternative? What’s the alternative environment if the one that currently exists disappears? If PolyMet’s public relations campaign turns out to be no more than that, and the result of the mining operation is a poisoning of ground and surface water for centuries, what will replace the current environment, which seems to sustain at least a fairly sizable number of people at present?

    Potable fresh water is among the most scarce resources on the planet, and the state’s northern reaches have a supply of it that’s the envy of many a state farther west. Why would Minnesotans voluntarily cooperate with an operation that could potentially poison much of that water for centuries to come? Where will the water come from to replace the water that’s been poisoned – if, in fact, it is poisoned – by the mining operation? Assurances from the company are worthless unless there are facts and examples to support those assurances. I know of no such facts, nor have I read or heard of any examples of this sort of mining being done on this sort of scale without huge environmental damage and costs. If there are such examples, let’s hear them.

  3. Submitted by ava Finch on 03/10/2014 - 07:44 pm.

    If it’s really about about the need for copper…

    Sure, we need copper. But we already have it – already mined, clean, in nearly pure form and just laying around. There’s .5 ounce of copper in your cell phone – if every time we bought a cell phone we included 5 pennies for the manufacturer in our payment – that would cover it. A computer, perhaps 30 pennies, A tablet, maybe 20. Batteries, I’m not sure. So, how about we eliminate the penny as currency and collect the pre 1983 all-copper pennies for manufacturers needing copper? Too simple? Not really.

  4. Submitted by C.A. Arneson on 03/10/2014 - 07:52 pm.

    Excellent article

    Thank you! One of the best!

  5. Submitted by Sheldon Gitis on 03/11/2014 - 12:31 am.

    Pot or PolyMet

    Re: PolyMet talking points #2 “If it isn’t grown it’s mined” and #10 – much needed jobs
    Why not grow it?
    The State of Colorado recently launched an industry, creating thousands of good-paying, long-term jobs for scientists, engineers, manufacturing labor, security guards, hospitality industry workers, sales and marketing personnel, even journalists , that in its first month of operation generated $14M in revenue and $3.5M in State taxes and fees.
    The stores selling cannabis products aren’t blighting scenic landscapes, threatening water resources, or jeopardizing the State’s tourism industry. On the contrary, the pot shops have been a boon to tourism in Colorado.

    PolyMet or pot, which would you prefer?

    • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 03/11/2014 - 03:56 pm.

      PolyMet never gave anybody the munchies nor a buzz. In fact,…

      …all that polluted water they’re going to make will probably lead to digestive upset or neurological symptoms in the next generation.

      Pot looks a lot safer.

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