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Sulfide mining: the most fateful decision Minnesota will ever make

Minnesota’s clean – incredibly rare – wealth of freshwater is its future.

On Nov. 28, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Superior National Forest Land Exchange Act of 2017 (HR 3115) [PDF], facilitating perpetual pollution of Lake Superior and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Sponsored by Rep. Rick Nolan, HR 3115 has been received in the U.S. Senate; if attached to another bill it could slide through, selling Minnesota’s birthright to the highest bidder with scarcely a whimper.

If it passes the U.S. Senate, HR 3115 would exchange lands acquired for watershed protection for use by the most water polluting industry on the planet. It would render the pending lawsuits against the PolyMet land exchange for its proposed NorthMet mine null and void, the people’s right to seek justice in the courts stolen.

Where is the outrage? Minnesotans need to speak loudly, clearly – with the ballot if necessary – declaring they will not allow their representatives to turn our lake country into a sulfide mining cesspool. Water is becoming desperately scarce worldwide. Minnesota’s clean – incredibly rare – wealth of freshwater is its future. 

Two days after passing HR 3115, the U.S. House passed HR 3905, “Minnesota’s Economic Rights in the Superior National Forest Act [PDF],” sponsored by Rep. Tom Emmer, Rep. Colin Peterson, and Rep. Jason Lewis (none of whom were elected by the people of the 8th Congressional District). HR 3905 delves even deeper into political and corporate machinations. By sponsoring federal legislation that would enable the sulfide mining industry to essentially call the shots in Minnesota, Emmer is showing how little he cares about process, or about all Minnesotans.

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The title of HR 3905, Minnesota’s Economic Rights in the Superior National Forest Act, is a misnomer. If it were really about Minnesota’s economic rights, it would refer to the economic and strategic value of Minnesota’s waters. It would address economic rights of those whose property values plummet and sales fall through, because buyers do not purchase lakeshore in watersheds haunted by the specter of sulfide mining. It would address the economic rights of those who established and invested in businesses dependent on clean water. It would highlight the rights of those whose health depends on maintaining the water quality of the area’s sole source aquifer; it would not make the sulfide mining industry more important than the health of Minnesota’s children. Nolan voted for HR 3905.

And Nolan and Emmer’s joint venture to defund the U.S. Forest Service study of sulfide mining adjacent to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness – Amendment 70 – is still lurking, attached within the Federal Omnibus Funding bill. Who in Minnesota would not want to know outcomes of risk assessments (especially for health), cost-benefit analysis, or cumulative impacts, all of which were incomplete or missing in PolyMet’s Environmental Impact Statement? Evidently not Nolan and Emmer, and certainly not the sulfide mining industry. 

This entire legislative onslaught has only one goal: to ram sulfide mining into Minnesota.

PolyMet would lead the assault as mile after mile of massive sulfide mines and reactive mining wastes pollute the greatest freshwater resources of the nation, in perpetuity.

Legislators who favor sulfide mining in Minnesota have long pointed to Utah as the example Minnesota should follow when it comes to the use of our School Trust Lands. Tragically, they have advocated using School Trust Lands to raise money for the education of Minnesota’s children by permitting the very industry that could destroy the intellectual capabilities of those children.

Minnesota has the opportunity to choose a different future, while such a choice is possible. Utah has been ranked as one of the highest producers of toxic chemicals in the nation, primarily because of toxic releases from Rio Tinto Kennecott’s Bingham Canyon copper mine. The two largest sources of toxic releases in the nation are the Bingham Canyon mine and Teck’s Red Dog zinc mine in Alaska. Teck holds the largest sulfide deposit in Minnesota, adjacent to PolyMet.

PolyMet’s hydrometallurgical process is essentially a chemical smelter. Think how easy it will be for Minnesota to top the nation’s toxic list with an entire range of metallic sulfide mines. The link is PolyMet. The sulfide mining industry wants that permit, it wants that LTV plant, and then buyouts or consolidation will do the rest. And Minnesota can kiss its clean waters goodbye.

‘The most fateful decision you will ever make’

The following comment was written by a Utah scientist, sent to the U.S. Forest Service in response to PolyMet’s land exchange; I have his permission to quote from it.

Please, do not continue with the proposed outrage, the land exchange that would facilitate the sulfide mining district within the Eastern Superior FS District. As one who has spent a career, literally, from childhood in a sulfide/acid mining district known as Tar Creek in NE Oklahoma, and activism and management level employment in environmental engineering at Kennecott Utah Copper/Rio Tinto in the Salt Lake City, Utah, region in the years since 1992, I can testify to the sheer extreme acidity that is the inevitable result of sulfide oxidation, and the essential impossibility of reversing (reducing) that epic, endless, extremely toxic acidity … the reality you will inevitably face throughout the sulfide mining district—forever!!

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The most fateful decision you will ever make is this one. Do not be tempted by the fraudulent claims asserted by PolyMet, and probably by other prospective mining companies, that “water treatment” can be accomplished by separation through reverse osmosis, separation of drinkable water from contaminants concentrated but not disposed of, according to announced plans. Don’t buy it! All of the historic acid plume water (which is being “treated” in the Kennecott/Rio Tinto RO plant) and the much older, more distant acid plume under the Valley-bottom drainage, the Jordan River, is being “treated” by the horribly energy-consuming RO process, accompanied in both cases (from both RO plants) by direct piping to the Great Salt Lake, for direct disposal into Nature. The Great Salt Lake is one of the Western Hemisphere’s most important migratory waterfowl and shorebird habitats, harboring more than five million per year, and as many as eleven million per year, about 250+ species, more than 100 species on the Endangered Species Act lists. Do mining companies care, at all? Not one bit. They deceptively claim that RO “treats” contaminated water, when all it does is separate permeate (clean) water from concentrate (concentrated contaminated) water. What is done with concentrate is, as they say, the entire ball game. What disposition of concentrate are you going to enforce? To what standards? Please, do not fall for this fraud.

I would add that the “sulfide/acid mining district known as Tar Creek” was the subject of a PBS documentary “The Creek Runs Red” (free to view online). The focus of the documentary, Picher, Oklahoma, no longer exists; only remnants of the town remain after the federal government paid people to voluntarily leave, deeming it too contaminated for residents.

A final irony

The day before the U.S. House voted on HR 3115, Nolan emailed his Monday Report to constituents. The subject line: “They’re in serious trouble! The heading: “Saving Minnesota’s Loons – Before It’s Too Late.” Nolan’s Monday Report then went on to state, “Our children and grandchildren deserve to hear the same call of the loon that we have enjoyed all our lives.”

On Tuesday, when HR 3115 passed the House, deliberately written to facilitate sulfide mining, the irony was palpable. Sulfide mining would destroy thousands of acres of habitat for loons in northeastern Minnesota, pollute lakes and streams, and create toxic pit waters, decimating loon populations throughout northeastern Minnesota.

Loons are an indicator species for mercury. So are our children. Sulfide mining releases of mercury and sulfur compounds to air and water increase accumulation of methyl mercury in the food chain. Loons, like humans, are at the top of the chain, and are at greatest risk. Our children and grandchildren deserve to be born without unsafe levels of mercury in their blood [PDF].

Sulfide mining is the most fateful decision Minnesota will ever make. Do not let anyone make it for you. 

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

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