Rep. Rick Nolan’s efforts to reverse the cancellation of mineral leases critical to the proposed Twin Metals copper-nickel mine near Ely are as cynical as they are reckless.
In arguing to reissue mineral leases, Nolan recites the same talking points echoed by other Twin Metals supporters: “Let’s let the process play out and see if the mine can really be done safely. If it can’t be done safely, we don’t want it either.”
It all sounds eminently reasonable, unless you understand the reality of how the process works, and why this argument is fundamentally at odds with reality.
When you allow the process to play out, the “study” always shows that the mine can operate within the existing rules, because that’s the assumption built into the EIS process. And in the case of sulfide-based mining, the study is almost always wrong — but the public doesn’t discover that fact until the damage is done.
And even if the study were to demonstrate that a proposed mine would fail to comply with state or federal laws, by the time the study is completed, politics invariably supersedes the science and the law.
In Minnesota, for example, it is illegal to permit a mine that will require perpetual water treatment to meet water quality standards. It’s a common-sense law, based on the sound principal that nothing created by humans lasts forever. At some point, the regulatory structures break down, records are lost, the water treatment ends because the money runs out, and the lakes and streams downstream will be polluted for centuries to come.
Yet none of this is expected to prevent the state of Minnesota from issuing a permit to mine to PolyMet Mining, even though the EIS on the project concludes that the proposed NorthMet mine will require perpetual water treatment. It’s one of those elephants in the room that the politicians and the regulators they oversee have simply decided to ignore. The expectation and demand for jobs in the short term overwhelms the environmental impacts in the long term. It’s simple, everyday political expediency.
However, Rep. Nolan’s decision to turn to the Trump administration to reverse the Twin Metals decision is not just expedient, it’s reckless. Nolan claims he wants a “scientific look” at whether Twin Metals can operate without major impacts to the environment, yet he knows he is turning to an administration with little more than disdain for both science and the environment. That he is willing to trust a president who has put the fox in charge of every regulatory henhouse, to oversee “protection” of a resource as extraordinary as the Boundary Waters wilderness is evidence that political ambition has outstripped his common sense.
Besides, in rejecting renewal of the Twin Metals leases, the U.S. Forest Service already examined the available peer-reviewed science and legitimately concluded that the risks of failure to contain acid mine runoff from Twin Metals or any sulfide-based mine within the primary watershed of the Boundary Waters are simply too high.
Indeed, the proposed site of the Twin Metals mine is arguably the worst place on the planet to site a sulfide-based copper-nickel mine. The surrounding geology has virtually no buffering capacity for acid runoff and it sits near the headwaters of one of the most pristine watersheds in the lower 48 states in a national forest that contains fully 20 percent of the fresh water within the entire national forest system.
Does Rep. Nolan really fail to understand the significance of the resource he is willing to permanently diminish? Does he not recognize the economic costs that threaten to offset any economic gains that mining might bring?
This latest incident is just more evidence of a troubling development with our Eighth District congressman. On this issue, and others affecting the environment, Rep. Nolan has lost perspective and is risking a precious national resource in the process.
Marshall Helmberger is the publisher of The Timberjay newspapers (including the Ely Timberjay, Tower-Soudan Timberjay and Cook-Orr Timberjay), where this commentary originally appeared. It is republished with permission.
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