A PolyMet Mining official recently spoke in my hometown of Grand Rapids, Minn., about the company’s proposed sulfide-mining operation in northeastern Minnesota. And not unexpectedly, he (from the sounds of it) made sulfide mining sound so benign one might be tempted to take a hike up to the proposed mine, after its 20-year lifespan has lapsed, and take a dip in one of the crater-sized open pits that will be left behind (not to mention the 400 million tons of piled-up waste rock) full of “reactive” (i.e., PolyMet-speak for “capable of producing acid-mine drainage”) heavy-metal slurry.
Acid-mine drainage (AMD) is what results from bringing sulfur-bearing minerals into contact with the atmosphere. Sulfuric acid is created. I’ve read that there are 1,500-year-old Roman-era hard rock mines in Europe that are still producing acid-mine drainage pollution today. In northern Minnesota, where surface and groundwater mix so readily, the initial draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on PolyMet’s proposal predicted that the mine’s “West Pit” would fill with water and overflow into the Partridge River about 45 years after the mine’s closure.
The speaker in Grand Rapids, Brad Moore, said the acidic contents of the tailings pond will stay on the site. But, as northeastern Minnesota hunter-angler/writer Shawn Perich said, “Much of the environmental debate surrounding the proposed PolyMet sulfide mining project revolves around whether PolyMet’s plans will contain the waste and whether the company has adequate bankruptcy-proof financial assurance to cover the cleanup cost. … PolyMet is located within the Partridge River watershed, a headwater tributary of the St. Louis River, which enters Lake Superior at Duluth.”
Sulfide mining: a 100% water pollution track record
PolyMet’s man in Grand Rapids failed to say there are no examples of hardrock mining operations without serious pollution. Never — not once, not anywhere in the world — has sulfide mining been done without damaging lakes and streams. The sulfide mines proposed for northern Minnesota are at the head of our continent’s three key watersheds: Great Lakes, Mississippi and Hudson Bay. Does it make sense for an industry with a 100 percent water-pollution track record to operate in North America’s most water-intense environment?
PolyMet’s representative didn’t explain why they won’t agree to genuine, escape-proof assurances that the company will be held responsible for any and all environmental harm they cause. He didn’t admit that mining companies have compiled a long record of promising safe practices, breaking those promises and shifting the costs of dealing with the damage onto taxpayers.
The PolyMet officials’ remarks reminded me of a timeless Mark Twain quote: “All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence; then success is sure.” A potent (and dangerous) combination tailor-made for PolyMet, it seems, according to the folks at Bloomberg-Businessweek:
PolyMet Mining seems an unlikely [mining company] candidate. … In its 33 years of existence, it hasn’t mined a single ounce of marketable ore. The company has posted zero revenue in those three decades, while piling up almost $100 million in losses. And its main physical asset is an abandoned factory filled with idled rock-crushing equipment on a desolate ridge in northeastern Minnesota.
But it seems that mining companies have a long track record of confidence fueled by ignorance, as our Canadian friends in B.C. learned (again) recently. At the Mount Polley mine in central British Columbia, a major breach in an earthen dam unleashed a torrent of contaminated mine tailings — an estimated 1.3 billion gallons — which swept into nearby salmon streams and lakes. The dam was designed by Knight Piésold. In 2013 the company stated in a memo to the EPA that “modern dam design technologies are based on proven scientific/engineering principles, and there is no basis for asserting that they will not stand the test of time.” The dam at Mount Polley wasn’t even 20 years old.
The prospective sulfide miners have grown fond of telling us that new technology will cure all ills associated with the inevitable acid-mine drainage (AMD) that ends up poisoning regional watersheds and waterways. But the sportsmen and women of northern Minnesota aren’t buying it, and neither should you.
For additional information, see: Sportsmen United for Sensible Mining, MN Trout Unlimited, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP), WaterLegacy, SavetheBoundaryWaters.org and PaddletoDC.org.
David A. Lien, of Colorado Springs, Colo., formerly of Grand Rapids, Minn., is a life member of the MDHA, co-chairman of the Minnesota Backcountry Hunters & Anglers and author of “Hunting for Experience: Tales of Hunting & Habitat Conservation.” During 2014 he was recognized by Field & Stream as a “Hero of Conservation.”
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