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The PolyMet bill: Rep. Nolan’s war of choice on Minnesota’s waters

In early July, 8th District Rep. Rick Nolan introduced HR 3115, a bill to force the completion of a highly controversial land exchange between the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and PolyMet Mining Corp. Nolan’s bill would fast-track the land exchange, requiring that it be completed within 90 days of the bill becoming law, even though no permits have yet been issued for the company’s proposed NorthMet mine. The bill would give PolyMet 6,650 acres of protected Superior National Forest (SNF) and pave the way for construction of PolyMet’s open-pit copper-nickel sulfide mine.

PolyMet’s sulfide mine would be the first ever to be permitted in the state. Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton has said that “this type of mining creates highly toxic sulfide waste.”

The federal lands at risk are a combination of forested wetlands, public waters, and critical wildlife habitat. At least 1,000 acres of irreplaceable wetlands would be destroyed and up to 8,000 acres impaired by the mining. These wild and remote lands contain Aquatic Resources of National Importance (ARNI), an ecosystem that is designated as “imperiled-vulnerable” in Minnesota, and an area most of which is rated as of “high biodiversity significance” by the Minnesota Biological Survey. The mine would also destroy critical habitat for Canada lynx and gray wolf, creating toxic sulfide mine waste, enormous waste rock stockpiles, roads and other mining infrastructure. Most of the damage would be permanent. According to Marc Fink, senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, “This bill is a blatant end run around current laws to hand Superior National Forest land over to a mining corporation. It should be stopped in its tracks.”

Nolan’s bill was introduced to override four separate legal actions by environmental groups and affected citizens who are challenging the land exchange in court. Political leaders have continually assured the public that we can rely on PolyMet’s environmental review process and that PolyMet would only be permitted if it would not harm the water and environment. But as soon as legal challenges appeared to have merit, Nolan authored a bill to prevent those suits from going forward.

By moving to bypass the judicial process, Nolan is denying his own constituents, as well as the citizens of his state and nation, due process under the law. Impacted citizens and groups have the legal right to challenge federal agency decisions under numerous laws, including the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

NEPA, signed into law in 1970, is referred to as the “environmental Magna Carta.” NEPA requires governmental agencies to assess the environmental and related effects of proposed actions through the preparation of environmental impact statements. Enforcement of the NEPA process is by a citizen suit provision, meaning any citizen can bring a lawsuit against the responsible federal agency for violation of NEPA. Nolan’s version of environmental review eliminates the right of citizens to question or challenge a federal regulatory decision. 

The value of public land

HR 3115 would override the NEPA process, the Administrative Procedures Act (APA), the Weeks Act, the Endangered Species Act, and other legislation that allows for public recourse as part of environmental review and protections. Of significant concern is that the public land of Superior National Forest belongs to the citizens of the United States and was set aside for their use and enjoyment, as well as watershed protection, now and into the future. Yet public interests are forgotten in Nolan’s legislative initiative, while foreign mining companies — Canadian PolyMet and Swiss multinational conglomerate Glencore — will reap the benefits, destroying our land for future use and poisoning our water. Kevin Lee, staff attorney at the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy (MCEA), stated, “Rep. Nolan’s bill is a giveaway of public land, plain and simple. It is a windfall for PolyMet and a swindle of public land users who use public land for hunting, fishing, and recreation.”

The land sought by PolyMet for its proposed open pits was originally purchased by the USFS under the Weeks Act of 1911 for the purpose of protecting the rivers and streams of the headwaters of Lake Superior, an internationally important watershed. Open-pit copper mining is not allowed on the Superior National Forest under the Weeks Act. Rather than saying ‘no’ as dictated by law, and protecting the irreplaceable natural resources of the Forest, the USFS agreed to trade public land to PolyMet for its mine. Both our federal agencies and our politicians are eroding away our citizen rights in favor of corporations.

Lori Andresen of the northern Minnesota-based group Save Our Sky Blue Waters states, “In authoring a bill to fast-track PolyMet’s destructive mine on protected public lands, Rep. Nolan is endorsing an extremely dangerous practice. Rep. Nolan undermines our democracy by placing corporate special interests ahead of the public interest by attempting to subvert current laws and legislate away due process and the constitutionally created right to have one’s day in court. Nolan’s political intervention for a foreign mining company demonstrates that the laws and environmental protections of our nation don’t apply equally to powerful multinational corporations and affected citizens.” 

Nolan is concurrently lobbying the Trump administration to reverse course on the Obama administration’s denial of federal mineral leases for the Twin Metals sulfide mine near Ely and the Boundary Waters. The Twin Metals mine could be jump-started through federal legislation, similar to what Nolan is trying with the PolyMet bill.

Environmental injustice for those downstream

Our politicians and corporate-controlled agencies are playing roulette with our water and our people, pitting promised mining jobs against those who live downstream, against those who value and need water as a precious natural resource in its own right, and those who wish to protect future generations from tailings basin disasters, water pollution, and cleanup costs. The largest human population in northeast Minnesota lives downstream of the proposed PolyMet mine and tailings basin. This includes the Fond du Lac Indian Reservation, as well as the cities of Cloquet and Duluth (and Superior, Wisconsin).

The major tailings basin disasters of Canada’s Mount Polley in 2014 and Brazil’s Samarco in 2015, whose toxic waste flowed over 400 miles downstream, clearly demonstrate that large-scale mine dam failures are not only possible, but likely. This is especially true when dealing with the large amounts of waste rock resulting when mining massive low-grade deposits — in PolyMet’s case, less than 1 percent mineralization, meaning 99 percent waste rock. PolyMet’s own environmental impact statement concedes that water from PolyMet’s mine site would need to be treated for at least 200 years after closure, and the plant site for 500 years. PolyMet could have been stopped on this issue alone. The fact that the project is in the permitting stage is clear evidence of political and regulatory capture by mining interests.

Corporate vs. citizen power

Nolan is willing to take away citizen rights while leaving behind a legacy of destruction of the land and pollution of the water for all future generations. The next question is this: Will Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken and others support Nolan’s actions? In February 2017, a Minnesota Environmental Partnership (MEP) statewide poll showed that 74 percent of those polled opposed the PolyMet mine [PDF]. 

Call your members of Congress now to let them know you oppose H.R. 3115, asking them to withdraw any support of the bill. You can look up contact information here. Contact Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton and let him know that you oppose PolyMet’s sulfide mine. All of Minnesota’s waters deserve protection from highly toxic sulfide mining, including the Lake Superior, Mississippi River and Rainy River watersheds. For more information go here.

Elanne Palcich, a retired elementary school teacher, lives in Chisholm, Minnesota. A version of this commentary appeared in the Duluth Reader.


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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 07/28/2017 - 01:49 pm.

    Do as I say, not as I do.

    We owe it to ourself to do all we can to keep the environment clean and safe. It is good that people are raising serious questions about this kind of mining. Polluted air and water are never OK. But isn’t this telling others what they cannot do without at the choices one makes?

    How many of us work for companies that use air, water and land to get rid of their waste? How many of us flush unused drugs down the toilet rather than bringing them to a collection site? How many avoid meat, as lots of air and water pollution result from it? Completely recycle all our garbage, keeping toxics out of the waste stream and avoid plastic bags, given how it had polluted waters worldwide?

    It is really easy to tell others what to do, but do few if any of the things we can do ourselves to reduce pollution levels. If you don’t feel it is necessary, please think about it. If you don’t know how, learn. And by all means hold large corporations accountable, but realize that if mining doesn’t happen here, it is likely to happen elsewhere when people don’t have the power to stop polluting practices.

  2. Submitted by Perry Ponshock on 07/28/2017 - 02:09 pm.

    Tailings dam collapses are likely? Contrast the number of tailings dams in existence and the number of failures – this is a grossly misleading conclusion that is either incompetent or malicious. Journalistic skill on display that trumpists would admire. Nolan is supporting union jobs in his district that supply raw materials for green energy manufacturing and many other things we all buy. If Nolan aligns with your unrealistic and emotional views our next house representative will be Schauber and Nolan knows that.

    • Submitted by Bill Willy on 07/30/2017 - 01:44 am.

      A little rude, Dude

      Before you so casually (not to mention insultingly) write-off Ms. Palcich as “grossly misleading, incompetent, malicious, unrealistic and emotional” you MIGHT want to do a little looking into what it is you’re saying yourself.

      “union jobs that supply raw materials for green energy manufacturing”

      What? Are you familiar with what the copper mining and refinement process consists of? What its inputs and by-products are? I’m not sure which green energy manufacturing you’re talking about (wind turbines, solar components, electric car parts?) but everything related to extracting copper from stone and its refinement to “finished product status” on the way to being ready to be used in whatever green end-products you’re thinking of is the antithesis of “green.”

      If you check it out you’ll see the “ratio” works out to somewhere around 10,000 tons of some of the most toxic stuff on earth for every 100 pounds of “green” products produced.

      But hey . . . 200 or so people getting union jobs that pay $80,000 and up for 20 years is worth whatever it takes, right?

      Anyway, before calling Ms. Palchich any more disrespectful names you MIGHT want to think about doing 1,000th of the research she’s done on this topic which you could start by doing a quick and easy search on “Glencore environmental record.” As I’m sure you know, Big Daddy Glencore Xstrata is the REAL mining giant that would be supplying all those union jobs, although I’m pretty sure you’ll see (if you do that search) they don’t have a real good track record of actually coming THROUGH with “all those jobs” once they get their 21st century mining robots in-place.

      Here are a few random sample headlines and links (in case doing a search is too much):

      Glencore Xstrata and corporate power in Peru

      Glencore Xstrata: Environmental Pollution, Tintaya Copper Mine

      Mining company’s failed environmental repair job creates concrete creek

      And, speaking of all those union jobs, take a look at this one:

      ‘Enough is enough’, say Glencore protesters

      Glencore stands accused of union busting, environmental destruction and complicity in human rights violations against communities in which it operates.

      (But don’t worry . . . That kind of thing couldn’t happen here)

      Oh . . . Here’s one that talks about Zambia, Polymet, Glencore, the Ojibwe people and MN legislators all in the same place . . .

      Political Matters: It takes a pillage

      The global conglomerate Glencore Xstrata operates a copper mine in Mufulira, Zambia, which allegedly is poisoning nearby residents with extremely high sulfur dioxide emissions. The Facing Finance website ( relayed a recent SRF (Swiss Radio and Television) Rundschau report from Zambia, where ‘the mine’s activities have had a negative impact on local communities, causing breathing difficulties, asthma, and even deaths.’ ”

      (But, again: That couldn’t ever happen anywhere near you, so no need to worry)

      Here’s one from

      Glencore under fire for zinc and lead mining pollution

      And if you want to broaden your horizons some (or “drill down” a little more tightly on the subject) try changing the search to plain old “Glencore mining disasters” and you’ll see a few thousand pages with links to things like this on them:

      Glencore reveals record of fatalities and environmental fines

      Campaigners say corporate responsibility report makes mining and commodities giant one of the most dangerous listed companies

      And here’s one for the kids . . .

      Mining giant Glencore accused in child labour and acid dumping row

      Glencore, the commodity and mining firm worth £27bn, stands accused in the Democratic Republic of the Congo of dumping raw acid and profiting from children working 150ft underground.

      Oh boy! . . . Here’s one (on a Canadian site) that actually talks about the same thing this Community Voices piece is talking about AND, as a special bonus I’m sure you’ll be interested in, it even talks about tailings ponds. Probably written by just another grossly misleading, incompetent, malicious, unrealistic and emotional person, but it starts out by saying, “ALL tailings ‘ponds’ are a problem. If they don’t breach and spill massive amounts of toxic sludge into the environment like at Mount Polley, they leach that contamination slowly, poisoning the waters and lands around them”:

      Environmental Disaster? The PolyMet Mining Project and the Lethal Impacts to the St Louis River Watershed and Lake Superior

      In the Spontaneous Fires and “We never killed a fish in our lives!” category, there’s this:

      The race to avert disaster at the NT’s McArthur River Mine

      When a giant toxic waste dump spontaneously ignited at one of the world’s largest zinc mines, serious questions were asked about how it could have happened. Jane Bardon investigates how regulators allowed a mine to operate with no known solutions to its massive waste problem.

      In the Northern Territory’s Gulf country, residents fear they’re on the cusp of an environmental disaster.

      They’re calling for the McArthur River Mine, the world’s largest bulk zinc-lead-silver concentrate exporter, owned by the Anglo-Swiss company Glencore, to be closed because its waste rock dump and tailings dam are leaching acid, metals and salts into the McArthur River system.

      But Glencore says its operation hasn’t contaminated fish in rivers outside its mine lease. It’s hoping to find solutions to the challenges it faces managing reactive waste rock on its site so it can get approval under a federal and Northern Territory government environmental impact statement (EIS) to keep on mining.

      (The Polymet/Glencore Xstrata Minnesota plan includes the environmentally friendly management of a 550 million ton pile of reactive waste rock — which would fill a 24,000 mile-long coal train — in the heart of that St. Louis River watershed but, again, no need to worry about that because they and the DNR are on top of it and have assured EVERYone there would be no problems whatsoever.)

      Okay . . . That’s some of what you’ll find on the first page of a search on “Glencore mining disasters.” I’d add some more from the collection of 56,000 hits, but I need to take a nap.

      Check this stuff out . . . Really . . . And remember . . . Glencore Xstrata is THE (totally foreign and untouchable) company Rick Nolan, you and everybody else who’s so hot for that handful of union jobs just can’t WAIT to climb into bed with.

      Take an honest look at Glencore’s real world track record and THEN tell me what a good idea you think it is to let them do what they do anywhere NEAR the Boundary Waters, the St. Louis watershed and that 10% of the world’s fresh water supply being stored in Lake Superior and how misleading, incompetent, malicious and unrealistic Ms. Palcich is.

      (I’m almost sure you just misspoke, but you really should take that back and apologize. There are few people in the state of Minnesota better informed on this issue than she.)

  3. Submitted by Elanne Palcich on 07/29/2017 - 08:26 am.

    Tailings dam failures

    Below is some additional info on tailings dam failures. Note that the instability of the former LTV tailings basin purchased by PolyMet has been an issue throughout the environmental process. Also note the low grade character of the NorthMet deposit at less than 1% metals, the mining of which would result in 99% waste rock.

    New research validated: mining disasters on the rise because of modern mining techniques

    Earthworks and Center for Science in Public Participation
    November 6, 2015

    “Our research shows that more mining waste disasters like Brazil’s Germano spill are inevitable,” said David Chambers, report co-author and director of the Center of Science in Public Participation. He continued, “If mining practices continue as usual, we are going to see more severe spills, more frequently. These spills each will cost the public hundreds of millions to billions of dollars to clean up – if cleanup is possible at all. And sometimes, like the Germano spill, they will cost people’s lives.”…

    There are 839 mining waste tailings dams in the United States and approximately 3,500 around the world, according to the U.S Army Corps of Engineers and the United Nations, respectively. Large dams built to contain mining waste, among the largest structures in the world, must stand in perpetuity. …

    Primary findings of The Risk, Public Liability & Economics of Tailings Storage Facility Failure include

    § The rate of serious tailings dam failures is increasing. Half (33 of 67) of serious tailings dam failures in the last 70 years occurred in the 20 years between 1990 and 2009.

    § The increasing rate of tailings dam failures is propelled by, not in spite of, modern mining practices. The increasing rate of tailings dam failures is directly related to the increasing number of TSFs larger than 5 million cubic meter capacity necessitated to allow the economic extraction of lower grades of ore.

    § 11 catastrophic failures are predicted globally from 2010 to 2019. Predicted total cost of these 11 failures is approximately $6 billion.

    § The average cost of the these catastrophic tailings dam failures is $543 million…

    § Mining companies cannot afford, and cannot secure insurance to cover, the costs of catastrophic failures: Losses, both economic and ecological, are in large part either permanent and non-recoverable, or recovery — to the extent physically possible — is funded by public monies.

  4. Submitted by Elanne Palcich on 07/29/2017 - 08:35 am.

    More tailings dam info

    There have been numerous catastrophic tailings dam failures in recent years, and new
    research has determined that tailings dam failures globally are increasing in severity and
    rate, driven by the use of larger and higher tailings dams to accommodate the waste
    generated by mining increasingly lower grade deposits.

    A recent analysis of U.S. copper mines operating in 2010, representing 89% of U.S. copper production, found that 28% had experienced partial or full tailings dam failures. Given these statistics, partial and/or total tailings dam failures should be considered a reasonably foreseeable outcome in the NEPA context, particularly since tailings dams become a permanent feature of the
    landscape, after mining ceases.

    Previous research pointed out that most tailings dam failures occur at operating mines,
    and that 39% of the tailings dam failures worldwide occur in the United States,
    significantly more than in any other country (Rico, et. al., 2008a, p. 848).

    • Submitted by Perry Ponshock on 07/30/2017 - 08:56 pm.

      Cause for concern, not prohibition

      A rise in “failures” is a legitimate concern, I agree. Engineers that work in the industry would also agree, believe it or not. But I still don’t think an 8% failure rate over the last 70 years justifies broadcasting failures being “likely.” I use quotes on failures because that is a very technical term in this context which, not being known to the casual reader, may be advantageous to the writer’s goals. Sort of like when a religious person decries evolution as only a theory.
      I would also argue the US 39% share of global failures is probably inflated by the high level (rightly so) of reporting and scrutiny US mines operate under. The US and Canada are global standards for responsibility and accountability – a model for the successful execution of the compliance, reporting and enforcement relationship between industry and government. Using willful, honest reporting as a club against the industry may be advantageous to the writer’s short term goals but does not provide much long term incentive for industry from a “social contract” perspective. It only creates bitter resentment. And let’s be honest, mining is not going away. Petroleum perhaps, but mining never.
      The only solution to the “failure” problem is a cooperative discussion between regulator and engineer, not prohibition. Luckily, as you point out, most of these failures occur at operating mines so there is the revenue and a knowledgeable engineering staff/consultants on site so the problems can be addressed. And, hopefully, the body of institutional knowledge is expanded. I hope this further illustrates my earlier point regarding the need to avoid engendering unnecessary resentment between the industry and the public/regulator – they ultimately have to work together for the best possible outcome.

  5. Submitted by richard owens on 07/29/2017 - 11:26 am.

    Sulfide mining will poison the water.

    Containment in perpetuity of sulfuric acid-laced waters is not possible.

    This is NOTHING like mining iron ore or taconite production.

    90% of the tailings, crushed to the fineness of talcum powder are discarded waste that will flow, blow and seep into the watershed for many years to come.

    One generation might benefit from a few jobs. This pristine part of Minnesota will be lost forever.

    Who benefits and how much is that benefit in dollars?

    Is it worth it?

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