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Water or sulfide mining: Which is more valuable?

The commodity value of water in northeastern Minnesota exceeds the commodity value of PolyMet’s copper-nickel ore.

When evaluating the impact of the proposed copper-nickel mines like PolyMet and Twin Metals on the natural resources of Minnesota, regulators, political leaders, and the public should consider the value of water as a natural, replenished resource.

The target of copper-nickel mining companies is an ore formation called the Duluth Complex, which lies in the middle of some of most beautiful and enjoyable lakes, streams and forests in the world. The problem with the proposed mining is that these ores are embedded in sulfide rocks. Unfortunately, the process of mining and recovering metals from sulfide ore has a long and sordid history of water pollution.

PolyMet is a Canadian company, with a “strategic partner,” Glencore AG, a Switzerland-based multinational corporation engaged in mining and commodities trading. Glencore has invested $118 million into PolyMet. PolyMet, in exchange, has agreed to sell all of the copper concentrate the mine would produce to Glencore for five years if the mine is permitted. Glencore, separately, has agreed to sell Chinese firms copper concentrate at market rates for the next eight years. Any profits made by PolyMet will flow to destinations far from Minnesota. 

A good trade?

Using PolyMet’s own numbers, they stand to earn over $4 billion over the 20-year lifespan of the project, if no reclamation costs are included. Let’s assume that such rosy projections are accurate. Would that be a good trade if we considered the economic value of the water resources that are at stake from PolyMet and sulfide mining proposals that could follow?

Sulfide mining has frequently contaminated both groundwater and surface water resources with acid drainage and heavy-metal leaching. And a review [PDF] of environmental-impact statements for mining projects nationwide by EARTHWORKS shows that while companies and regulators never predict water pollution in the planning stage, nearly all sulfide mines end up contaminating water.  

Water is the dominant natural resource in northeast Minnesota. Without even considering the tourism and recreational value of all of these lakes and rivers, the raw commodity value at stake suggests we should think twice before threatening this resource. In southern California, the wholesale value of drinking water is $1,300 per acre-foot. Water is even more valuable elsewhere. In drought-wracked Central Texas, water from the Edwards Aquifer is valued at over $5,000 per acre-foot.

The commodity value of water in northeastern Minnesota exceeds the commodity value of PolyMet’s copper-nickel ore. One might object and say that not all of this water is at risk, which is true, in a limited sense. But the choices Minnesota makes about PolyMet are really decisions about inviting the sulfide mining industry in to our water-rich state.

Value of water will rise

When one considers the rapidly depleting Oglala Aquifer, growing droughts, and climate change, the value of water can only increase. And yet, we’re seriously considering taking on an industry that promises 500 years of water pollution? That’s foolish.

So, why mine and take the chance of destroying such a rich natural resource, the industries it supports, the value of lake property, and the tax base? This is a case where the minerals are more valuable staying right where they are. The real strategic resource that Minnesota possesses is our water. 

Clint Jurgens is a retired high-tech engineer and entrepreneur. Mary Ann Jurgens is a retired writer. They own a home on White Iron Lake.


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Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by Steven Bailey on 03/24/2014 - 08:33 am.

    We are broken

    After all the repeated environmental catastrophes we have witnessed in the last 50 years how in the world does this type of mining even get consideration? For the amount of jobs that are projected, the life of the mine, and the incredible risks associated with it, it would be cheaper for the state to pay the projected employees to not mine.

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 03/24/2014 - 12:01 pm.

      Montana, a big pro-mining state, figured it would have been cheaper to buy their ore elsewhere and simply give it away than deal with the environmental cleanup. We’ll get twenty years of jobs from this mine, but we’ll hundreds of years of hunting and tourist jobs if we instead maintain the area in a pristine shape.

      Let’s not go for short term gains and give up the long term viability of our state.

  2. Submitted by Pat Brady on 03/24/2014 - 08:53 am.

    Our most precious resource

    This article expresses my own sentiment that water is our most precious resource.
    By putting a dollar value on our water resource it glves a needed prospective in this mining debate.
    Leave the minerals in the ground for future generations, and protect our water as a valuable economic resource for our state.

  3. Submitted by mark wallek on 03/24/2014 - 09:34 am.

    Human or corporate life

    For a human being, water is clearly more important than sulfide. For the Corporation, who is not human and is soulless, profit is what matters, so sulfide is more important. If in the future clean water is harder to obtain, that means it will cost more, so some Corporate entity will profit. The nation is being moved toward adopting corporate values as a lifestyle. The impersonal nature of these relations minimize the need to be bothered by human concerns. Adapt or die I believe is the common phrase. In a society that crushes the individual under a growing mound of obligatory debt (auto and health insurance right now), we will see a rise in corporate power and an even larger infestation of the inhuman values into human life. Twenty years from now, when I will surely be dead, things will not be looking too sweet for the human, unless of course they’ve sold their souls to the soulless corporations.

  4. Submitted by Presley Martin on 03/24/2014 - 12:35 pm.

    I think we want both.

    I like the simplicity of this argument, but I’m not sure that comparing the raw material(sulfide) is the best way to describe the choice. Maybe we should say do we want our gadgets, computers/phones, electrified connected world or do we want clean water. I think we want both these things, but we can live without the gadgets, but not without clean water. It has got me thinking about how much copper is in the ground up there vs how much copper do we have sitting around in out obsolete devices? Could we mine our landfills and junk instead? Just a thought.

  5. Submitted by Joe Musich on 03/24/2014 - 02:13 pm.

    Thank you

    I also appreciate a dollar value being assigned to good old h2o. I have read a number for the fairly well estimated figure for rare mineral recycling. I remember the number being quite low. Now the tie in to product being shipped out of the country. Wow ! All these together only increase the idiocy of allowing this project to even have been an idea. Guess you could write a new dumb and dumber script.

  6. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 03/24/2014 - 10:36 pm.

    A few hundred jobs for 20 years at the price of 500 years…

    …of water pollution, all the profits exported from Minnesota, with potential damage to the state’s economy far exceeding any tax or jobs benefits ??

    People forget how much money tourism brings in to the state – it is HUGE, and the natural beauty and wildlife, supported by relatively clean water of northern MN, plays a big part in it. This revenue stream is vulnerable if water quality declines further.

    What kind of minds would seriously consider this trade ?? The minds at the DNR are not only doing so, the smart money is on the mining industry. The DNR is impossibly conflicted in its dual role of protector of the environment and promoter of the sale of Minnesota’s natural resources. This case illustrates the incompatibility of these two roles.

    We need legislation which separates these two functions. You can’t be prosecutor and defense in the same case. We need it before the target areas of northern MN have been dug up and those waters subjected to long term pollution. It’s not just PolyMet, it’s also the other projects waiting in the wings for PolyMet to lead the way.

  7. Submitted by James Hamilton on 03/24/2014 - 07:27 pm.

    An 8 year old study

    of 183 hard rock mines operating since 1975 does not strike me as persuasive evidence of anything pertinent to the present issue. The study focused on 25 of these mines but, at least in the executive summary, fails to state the dates on which the projections were made. Perhaps a more objective reader than the authors will mine the study for those details and tell us whether the accuracy of forecasting has improved over time.

  8. Submitted by THOMAS REYNOLDS on 03/25/2014 - 07:17 pm.

    The Argument

    It’s funny the same argument was made of Taconite processing and nearly 50 years later we’re talking of the beauty of that environment and the purity of the water as a case against the new proposed mining.

    • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 03/26/2014 - 10:10 am.

      These are very different types of mining, with….

      …very different types of environmental consequences.

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 03/26/2014 - 12:50 pm.


      Are we talking about the beauty of of environment because of taconite mining or in spite of it? Are the areas around those mines beautiful spots with pristine water or do they suffer from pollution?

      Answer those questions and I have a feeling you’ll find an answer to the Polymet proposal too.

    • Submitted by C.A. Arneson on 06/21/2014 - 04:20 pm.

      Iron vs taconite

      I think you have iron mining and taconite mining confused. Iron did not have the waste that taconite mining does, and therefore was less destructive (at least where it could be seen). Iron mines near Tower and Ely were small underground mines, not open pit taconite mines with huge piles of waste.

      No one is talking about the areas where taconite mining has been done as beautiful environments with pure water – Mountain Iron, Virginia, Hibbing, Hoyt Lakes, Eveleth, Chisholm, Babbitt, etc. Babbitt however is on the edge of the Lake Country that Duluth Metals and Antofagasta are proposing to essentially eradicate for sulfide mining, and the Duluth Complex deposits there have never been mined. The very small Dunka Mine (taconite) came the closest, where they accidentally hit Duluth Complex material and polluted Birch Lake.

      Taconite mining has been done on the Mesabi Iron Range. Proposed sulfide mining, in the Duluth Complex for copper-nickel, would be done in our un-mined Lake Country of the Arrowhead, not on the Mesabi Iron Range. In PolyMet’s case the proposed mine would be on Superior National Forest lands in the Duluth Complex/Lake Country, and the processing would be done on the Mesabi Iron Range, reusing an abandoned, unstable tailings basin near Hoyt Lakes.

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