Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.

Donate
Topics
Community Voices features opinion pieces from a wide variety of authors and perspectives. (Submission Guidelines)

PolyMet will not protect Minnesota’s waters

A mining company can have a permit, violate standards, and still be in compliance with its permit.

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.

Article continues after advertisement

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.”

Article continues after advertisement

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.

WANT TO ADD YOUR VOICE?

If you’re interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, email Susan Albright at salbright@minnpost.com.)