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Sulfide mining: the most fateful decision Minnesota will ever make

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.

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!!

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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Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by joe smith on 12/12/2017 - 09:20 am.

    Tar creek mining was started around

    1900, I believe regulations have changed a bit since then. Polymet has been held up by lawsuits from Friends of the Loon to Friends of the Lynx for the express purpose of slowing down the process. Just as there are new emission regulations for cars in 2017, there are new regulations for copper/nickel mining. If Polymet passes the regulations, give them the permits, if not, don’t. I live up here on a lake also and am in favor of mining.
    There has been an anti mining coalition up here for decades. I remember the Reserve mining case hanging on asbestos in Lake Superior. Reserve was ordered,by judge Lord, to stop putting tailings in Lake Superior because of asbestos. 50 years later the asbestos levels in Lake Superior have not changed. I get tired of folks, who live on a lake, reading a biased report from some “Green anti mining” group and claiming they know better than chemical engineers hired by the state to determine water quality. These same folks love when the DNR sides with them on their description of navigatible waters (absolutely idiotic) but can’t trust them with mining regulations. Please no talks how the DNR are paid off by the evil mining companies. That conspiracy theory is hard to believe but many throw it out there. The DNR is into over protecting the environment, not destroying it!

    • Submitted by C.A. Arneson on 12/12/2017 - 08:29 pm.

      Missed the point

      Is the Bingham Canyon mine, and its present use of reverse osmosis, including disposal to The Great Salt Lake, current enough for you?

      You evidently missed the point of Picher, Oklahoma, which is that the contamination could not be cleaned up. Regardless of what regulations are in play at any given time, if toxic contamination cannot be cleaned up, it cannot be cleaned up. Is Minnesota willing to take that risk, the pollution legacy of a sulfide mining industrial zone in the middle of our lake country, even if you are?

      PolyMet’s perpetual ‘treatment’ means there will be perpetual pollution of our waters. And there is no guarantee in PolyMet’s EIS that reverse osmosis would even occur after closure. What if closure cannot be attained?

      Since you brought it up, I would suggest that the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and DNR Land and Minerals be separate entities, and let the DNR take care of our surface resources. Eventually, the very existence of DNR Land and Minerals depends on permitting sulfide mining; essentially cutting your own division is quite a conflict of interest.

      As for the Reserve Mining case, it is interesting to note that you did not mention what tipped the scales. Reserve’s chairman, C. William Verity, when asked by Judge Miles Lord if the company could find a solution, said, “We don’t have to, we won’t.”
      http://news.minnesota.publicradio.org/features/2003/09/29_hemphills_reservehistory/

      There is nothing in the human rights and environmental resumes of Glencore, Antofagasta, Teck, or Rio Tinto/Kennecott that indicates they would operate any differently than Reserve did when it comes down to protecting industry profits over our waters.

      If you think a regulation will make a difference, think again. Especially when we have legislators in Minnesota who already override them.

    • Submitted by C.A. Arneson on 12/13/2017 - 09:33 am.

      Mining regulations in Minnesota

      I know that I have used this link before, and pointed it out to you, but readers of this piece may not have seen it and would be interested in understanding the reality of our regulatory system.
      http://www.timberjay.com/stories/mining-regulation-legislature-shows-a-lack-of-will,12729

  2. Submitted by Wes Davey on 12/12/2017 - 09:28 am.

    It’s all about greed

    It’s all about greed, and not just the greed of the foreign mining companies who would take our minerals from our state for precious little in return and leave waste and polluted waters behind.

    There is also the omnipresent greed of politicians who hold the winning of the next election dearer than the future of our state and country. One can understand Rep. Nolan seeking jobs for his district, but those jobs should not be at the expense of our posterity who may also want to paddle the clear waters of the North and drink from its lakes.

    Rep Nolan, twenty-first century thinking is needed to create new jobs in the 8th District, not 19th century mining.

  3. Submitted by charles thompson on 12/12/2017 - 10:01 am.

    water vs copper

    Your survival depends on potable water, not copper tubing. Minnesota has a booming iron mining sector that is about to expand further as Cleveland Cliffs just acquired 500+ acres yesterday. Do we really need to take a chance on polluting our unique and irreplaceable liquid assets for the benefit of Glencore/Polymet?

  4. Submitted by C.A. Arneson on 12/12/2017 - 10:07 am.

    Tar Creek and Picher, Oklahoma, have been in the news recently. The article (linked below) is enlightening on multiple levels, the health of the children and residents of the area, the perspective of the people who lived in Picher during the buyout, and the link to the current administration.

    Minnesota’s Regional Copper Nickel Study found that the area Antofagasta is proposing to mine, specifically under Birch Lake, has a significant risk of subsidence if mining occurred.

    In addition to toxic contamination, another reason Picher, Oklahoma, was judged to be unsafe was due to subsidence (collapse).
    https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/12/06/scott-pruitt-tar-creek-oklahoma-investigation-215854?wpisrc=nl_energy202&wpmm=1

  5. Submitted by Nancy Gibson on 12/12/2017 - 05:31 pm.

    sulfide mining

    Wisconsin just signed into law allowing more mining without environmental reviews and financial assurance. This is disastrous for our neighbor. Equally disastrous are the laws being changed in Congress offering corporate handouts to pollute our waters for decades. This is a fateful decision that needs a powerful coalition to stop and that coalition needs politicians who can see beyond the mining jobs argument. What happens to the current jobs up there and why are they not of equal value. Are we going to put the moose on our endangered species list with those wetlands drain.

    Another well-written article and let’s hope we are listening.

  6. Submitted by Joe Musich on 12/12/2017 - 07:57 pm.

    Another wonderfully documented…

    piece speaking to the infinite damage caused by sulfide mining. We have the evidence this mining does long term damage to the point of longer than human history. I suspect to see defensive posts regarding the information to appear shortly expressing otherwise. I just do not understand that with any capital from these ventures leaving the land the which minerals could be taken and the number of jobs actually being created the reason anyone would support this for a second ? It is a rhetorical question. This group has to start talking about real possibilities for job creation if they really want to revitalize the range.

  7. Submitted by Peter Doughty on 12/13/2017 - 12:00 pm.

    Obvious to me from the moment I first learned about this mine was that it would happen. Obvious to me was that the same tiresome excuses would be trotted out: jobs (what a joke — industry always mechanizes every possible stage of production), environmental protection (a bigger joke), whatever. Obvious also: Whichever politicians and regulators needed to sign off on it would be bought, pressured or installed.
    All inevitable under the insane system of “economic growth.” The only realistic prospect for preventing it would be an economic crisis on a scale comparable to 2008. Fortunately, there are plenty of indications that such a crisis is near, perhaps near enough to stop all or most of this destruction.
    As George Monbiot has recently written: “Green consumerism, material decoupling, sustainable growth: all are illusions, designed to justify an economic model that is driving us to catastrophe. The current system, based on private luxury and public squalor, will immiserate us all: under this model, luxury and deprivation are one beast with two heads.”

  8. Submitted by C.A. Arneson on 12/14/2017 - 10:42 am.

    Addendum

    Recently, the Flambeau mine was brought up yet again as an example of why Minnesota should go ahead with permitting PolyMet, as if PolyMet and Flambeau were equal comparisons. The link below shows the inaccuracy of such a view.
    https://www.minnpost.com/environment/2015/12/should-polymets-proposed-mine-be-compared-flambeau-mine

  9. Submitted by Madison Taress on 03/29/2018 - 02:37 pm.

    Discourage future residents in settling in North East Minnesota

    Recently there is concern that the Arrowhead region of Minnesota has seen little gain in population. This is a problem for those who live here as critical jobs will not be filled. There is already a shortage for those in the health care business. The massive pollution from copper sulfide mining will serve as a detriment to the prospect of future residents. I suggest that Minnesotans use this as a warning to potential new residents that the region is in danger of severe pollution not only in Arrowhead but also along the Eastern half of Minnesota where there is current exploration of copper sulfide mining. I encourage voting out the Democrats and Republicans who support the copper sulfide mining.
    Spread the word to everyone how the state is destined to be a polluted mess. Let it be known to new business prospects that this is not going to be a healthy area in which to reside. This attempt is the only viable way to fight copper sulfide mining and the politicians who support it, as we already know they don’t listen to facts about the inevitable pollution and will likely ignore any future comment contrary to the danger that awaits this state in the upcoming year.

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