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PolyMet will not protect Minnesota’s waters

I spent 10 years of my life reading and researching a fairy tale: “PolyMet.”

In the PolyMet Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS), “estimated” appears an estimated 700 times.

Yet the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Land and Minerals Division, could not even tell me the estimated water appropriations number for PolyMet’s proposed sulfide mine: “We currently don’t have any applications in to be able to give you a number.” After 10 years, DNR Land and Minerals does not have an approximate water appropriations number to give the public.

Instead we are told to wait for PolyMet to turn in its water appropriations application, for PolyMet to finally tell DNR Land and Minerals how much of our water it intends to appropriate — in other words pollute. (Water treatment is hypothetical and limited).

Should have been part of public discussion

A total water appropriations number should have been part of the public discussion throughout PolyMet’s environmental impact study, the amount adjusted as necessary. Water appropriations are just as important as “estimated times for affected waters to reach the Partridge River,” or “estimated mercury concentration of the combined inflows to the Plant Site,” or “estimated existing groundwater contours,” or “model-estimated dust deposition, or “the estimated resisting shear strength to the applied shearing load.” I think you get the idea without reading approximately 700 examples from the FEIS.

We have been told that a document full of “estimated” would protect Minnesota’s strategic water reserves — one of the largest freshwater deposits on earth, containing precious wetlands, streams, rivers, and lakes. Lake Superior alone is the largest freshwater resource in the world by surface area.

We have been told that the water of Minnesota would be protected by a document that predicts “transitioning from mechanical to non-mechanical water treatment if or when proven effective.” (Italics added) A document that indicates our waters would be permanently polluted, needing treatment “indefinitely.”

Not surprisingly, DNR Land and Minerals has numbers for PolyMet’s mineral resource. Since the DNR is also responsible for the surface resources that PolyMet’s proposed sulfide mine would damage or destroy, one would think a water appropriations number would be equally available from the beginning of the permitting process.

DNR motto: “Helping people ensure the future of our water resources.” Ensure means guarantee. Yet there are no guarantees for our waters in PolyMet’s FEIS. Just estimates.

‘Strong standards’ that aren’t enforced

“Minnesota has strong standards” is a lie of omission; it fosters the misconception that our laws are actually enforced. A mining company can have a permit, violate standards, and still be in compliance with its permit. “As long as a company takes a water sample once a month, has it tested, and sends the results to the Minnesota PCA, it’s in compliance with its permit, even if its discharges exceed pollution standards by orders of magnitude” (Timberjay). And the Minnesota Legislature can always step in, but not to protect — to make sure there is no enforcement, as in the case of the sulfate standard.

Minnesota’s taconite mines do not meet air and water quality standards, are operating on expired permits, and claim reverse osmosis is cost prohibitive and ineffectual, “not feasible.” Now, proposed sulfide mining in our Lake Country is being shoved down the throats of all Minnesotans. Pollution from PolyMet’s NorthMet mine pits, dug on Superior National Forest lands intended for watershed protection, would flow into headwaters of both the St. Louis River watershed and the Rainy River watershed; flow to Lake Superior and to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Voyageurs National Park.

For years PolyMet, and DNR Land and Minerals, denied such a scenario was possible, while cohort Barr Engineering (Barr) used elevated water level numbers to skew its water flow modeling. Agencies now say they will employ “adaptive mitigation measures” if (when) polluted waters head north as well as south. Try waving a magic wand, the result would be the same.

Conclusion: Permission to pollute

Barr ’s actions do not surprise me; 10 years ago Barr basically gave PolyMet permission to pollute.

In 2006, Barr sent a memorandum to PolyMet Mining. Under, “Conclusions and Recommendations,” it stated the following: “It should be noted that for pollutants which are not impairing (e.g. for which the receiving water is not listed as impaired for that pollutant), it is acceptable to increase the mass and even the concentration of those pollutants. In fact, variances have been issued in certain circumstances for Class 3 and 4 pollutants (non-metals – things like total dissolved solids, hardness, alkalinity, specific conductance, chlorides) when discharges do not meet water quality standards. Non-degradation requirements must still be met, of course.”

PolyMet would have to meet Minnesota’s non-degradation rules that protect the waters of the state.

Which is why the Minnesota Legislature and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency have been stealthily weakening Minnesota’s non-degradation rules under the guise of bringing its rules into compliance with federal antidegradation requirements.

Stop believing PolyMet’s fairy tale. The frog gets poisoned, not kissed.

C.A. Arneson lives on a lake in the Ely area.


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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 06/30/2016 - 09:41 am.

    On target

    I don’t live on a lake near Ely, don’t belong to Greenpeace, and have little interest in canoeing the Boundary Waters, so my vested interest in the purity of waters “up north” is that of an ordinary citizen.

    I nonetheless believe Mr./Ms. Arneson to be pretty much on the mark in his/her critique of PolyMet. While I claim no expertise regarding the technical and chemical details, I’ve read everything I’ve seen in public media regarding the proposed mining operation, and it seems to me all that’s necessary to decide that PolyMet is not in the public interest is to point out that no sulfide mine anywhere on the planet, in any century for which we have records, has successfully avoided major pollution of associated waters, nor has any mining company responsible for such pollution stayed in business long enough to actually live up to whatever promises it might have made regarding prevention and cleanup.

    Instead, the history of mining as an industry is one of disregard for the general public and its interests, exploitation of workers, little interest in or action regarding safety standards, and the abandonment of mining sites, sometimes within days, as soon as operations become unprofitable. Few mining companies stay in business beyond the point where the resource being mined has played out, and once that’s happened, the company can (and many have) go belly-up legally and financially. They often simply walk away, leaving the public holding the proverbial bag when it comes to cleaning up the mess and dealing with the environmental consequences.

    I’ve seen no evidence that the PolyMet operation will differ significantly from that stereotype in this instance. Estimates, even when informed by science, are only guesses, and a guess is not at all the same thing as proof on (or in) the ground. Acquiring that proof might require environmental catastrophe, self-inflicted by PolyMet and myopic local and DNR officials. The tradeoff for a couple hundred jobs that last, at best, a generation, might well be centuries – centuries – of poisoning of ground and surface water resources in northern Minnesota. Should that come to pass, the Boundary Waters might well become a national monument to the evils of mining and greed, and beyond that, those couple hundred good-paying mining jobs for a generation will be given precedence over the livelihoods of many thousands of residents of the area and state whose livelihoods depend precisely on the recreational and, to some degree, agricultural resources that the mine may well destroy.

    Estimates are not guarantees, and guarantees are what are needed regarding the only environment we have. Centuries of pollution in exchange for a couple hundred jobs for a generation does not strike me as a sensible or equitable tradeoff.

    • Submitted by Steve Vigoren on 06/30/2016 - 08:05 pm.

      Totally agree

      with Mr. Schoch and the author of the article. It should also be emphasized that mining companies have become very adept at being able to dodge their financial responsibilities to the environment when things go wrong. Polymet has never operated a mine, and is owned by Glencore, who has. “The company has been implicated in environmental disasters, labor violations, and human rights abuses around the world.” It is said mining companies can even make Donald Trump blush when it comes to how they skip out on the bill when it comes time to pay.

      “To date, mining companies are unable to point to a sulfide mine that has ever been developed, operated and closed without producing polluted drainage from its operations. Yet studies show that the companies and state agencies reviewing mine plans consistently predict no pollution will occur during the planning and permitting process.
      Analysis of environmental impact statements for hardrock mines showed that 100 percent of mines predicted compliance with water quality standards before operations began. When researchers examined the track record of these mines after operations began, they found that 76 percent of them were actually discharging pollutants
      in excess of water quality standards.’

  2. Submitted by Joe Musich on 06/30/2016 - 09:31 pm.

    Wow another …

    posting of evil Polymet and nothing hardly changes regarding this ambling Sta puff ghost moving forward. Another attempt being is made to put this project aside and yet discussion continues.
    Key line in this current effort and I am glad resistance continues is …“Minnesota has strong standards” is a lie of omission; it fosters the misconception that our laws are actually enforced. A mining company can have a permit, violate standards, and still be in compliance with its permit…….” It is the weak laws to honestly protect public health including the public’s need for clean water that that is at stake. These weak laws need to be directly spoken to as the writer of this is attempting to do. Ten feet from me on my dinning room table sits the disks of the FEIS it may as well also be made of ectoplasm. This entire discussion regarding Polymet is nothing more then a kabuki charade. Pure power is protecting the continues discussion on something that should be long dead and buried. As this moves forward like so many other historical examples of our spicies miscalculations we are headed to the cliche condition of “we should have known better !” There might be nothing more for us to do than lampoon the principals and pointedly mock them.

  3. Submitted by Elanne Palcich on 07/01/2016 - 11:03 pm.


    Our politically controlled agencies have betrayed us. Agency heads are paid with taxpayer dollars, and the public depends on our agencies to see that state laws/standards are met. However, for the entire history of the taconite mining industry, the DNR and MPCA have allowed taconite mines to pollute our waters and air, impacting fish, wild rice, drinking water, and human health. These very same agencies are now promoting the opening of an even more polluting sulfide mining industry.
    In the 1980’s, the state of Minnesota had a moratorium on copper-nickel sulfide mining. It would have been in the best interests of this state to have retained that moratorium and protected our unique area and clean waters.
    Instead, political momentum has continued to promise new mining jobs, keeping people hanging on to that possibility rather than searching for other opportunities. We continue to stay mired in a mining economy that offers fewer jobs while destroying the environment more quickly due to bigger equipment–and we continue to stay locked in a boom-bust economy.
    Most importantly, future generations will be denied the opportunity to experience the beauty and quality of the natural environment that we have been able to experience–the environment that we thought would be protected by our agencies and our political leaders. We have all been betrayed.

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