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Mount Polley and PolyMet: What happened in Canada must not happen here

We bring this message from Duluth, where we live downstream of the proposed PolyMet mine.

Final permit decisions on PolyMet's proposed NorthMet Mining Project are approaching, and for all the celebration of the process by politicians and company promoters here in Minnesota, we have grave concerns. We bring this message from Duluth, where we live downstream of the proposed PolyMet mine.

Last week we welcomed a delegation from Amnesty International to discuss their experience with a British Columbia copper sulfide mine upstream of their own communities. This is a group that has heard it all before: promises of safety from mining companies, claims of new technology that isn’t, guarantees of zero discharge, and assurances from government officials that it will all be fine.

Unfortunately, in 2014, the dam upstream of them collapsed, sending toxic water and tailings into nearby Quesnel Lake, effectively turning the pristine lake into a waste pit. The Mount Polley dam breach is the worst environmental disaster in Canadian history, and it is ongoing.

Local people who drank straight from the lake now drink bottled water out of fear of cancer, miscarriages, and neurological disorders. Indigenous communities are currently sitting out their fourth consecutive salmon season, a resource as important to them as wild rice is here. These downstream communities have seen no justice.

Troubling similarities

JT Haines

While this is a Canadian story, we are shaken by the similarities. The companies promised safety, but at every turn have promoted their bottom line over best practices and best technology. Government officials repeated assurances of a rigorous environmental process, but have granted continuous exceptions and variances to the company. Unbelievably, downstream communities, including indigenous communities, were not consulted on emergency response planning.

The Amnesty delegation urges us to avoid blind faith in regulatory regimes that are conflicted in mission, limited in scope, lax in enforcement, subject to regulatory capture, and which have yet to protect surrounding waters from this particularly toxic industry. British Columbians believed in their process, and that trust was shattered.

Bridget Holcomb

Here in Minnesota, PolyMet has said that the comparison between its proposal and Mount Polley is unfair, citing that the slope on its proposed tailings dam would be less steep. The Mount Polley dam failure, however, was not attributed to the steepness of the slope, but to an unstable foundation. If permitted, the PolyMet dam would be built on unstable taconite tailings on top of a wetland, at a height of nearly twice that of Mount Polley, with an upstream wet tailings design. DNR’s own consultants have pointed out the similarities. PolyMet officials either did not read the Mount Polley Independent Expert Investigation and Review Report, or they are trying to deceive Minnesotans.

Libby Bent

You might ask, where are our elected officials? Despite the clear importance to her city, Duluth Mayor Emily Larson has so far declined to publicly assert our stake in this matter. (Notably, neighboring Carlton City passed a resolution last week expressing its stake and requesting a moratorium on sulfide mining in Minnesota until a 20-year record of safety is shown.) Gov. Mark Dayton has made baffling statements that oppose sulfide mining as too dangerous for the Boundary Waters but are generally supportive of it where Duluth and Lake Superior would be at risk. Our own Rep. Rick Nolan has promoted legislation that would force a land swap to allow mining on federal lands, limit environmental review of copper sulfide mine proposals, and stop scientific study of the cumulative effects of copper sulfide mining in northern Minnesota.

For their part, the Minnesota Legislature and DNR seem unclear between them whose job it is to actually decide if this is a good or bad idea for Minnesota. Sadly, our own confidence in our elected officials and government is in jeopardy.

Driving a wedge between us

We appreciate that the boom and bust cycles on the Iron Range make the promise of new mining jobs attractive. PolyMet is capitalizing on this and dividing all of us who live in northern Minnesota by playing to emotions of trust and heritage. It is painful to see a foreign corporation drive a wedge between us, despite our shared values, and obscure the facts on which this decision should be based.

This is what PolyMet does not want us to know:

The record of sulfide mining is abysmal. Worldwide, the industry has failed and failed again to store its waste, and has left a legacy of rivers devoid of life from mining waste settling into riverbeds, ensuring that toxic heavy metals will continue to prevent life for centuries. While we may want to believe we have stronger oversight and regulations, performance in the US is horrid. According to the U.S. Forest Service 2016 study, 100 percent of sulfide mines have had spills, and 28 percent have, like Mount Polley, had outright dam failures. A 2017 U.N. report shows that catastrophic spills are actually increasing, as mining companies seek to lower costs and increase profits.

Glencore, PolyMet’s main investor, has a history of broken promises and abuse of union workers and communities across the globe. Worldwide this industry is replacing workers with robots. This is not how we continue Minnesota’s proud union tradition.

At the recent public hearing in Duluth, several PolyMet supporters borrowed a well-worn talking point and tried to shame opponents for using copper in cellphones and cars. Rarely included with such statements is the fact that we Americans throw away more copper every year than the proposed PolyMet mine would produce. To those who are truly concerned about how much copper is being used by consumers: Copper is infinitely recyclable and in abundant supply, and recycling creates jobs and reduces carbon emissions.

Our truly precious resource

The truly precious resource we have in northern Minnesota is our freshwater complex, which includes the headwaters of Lake Superior and 10 percent of the world's supply of fresh surface water.

It is too late for Mount Polley, and we stand in solidarity with our Canadian friends as they fight for reparations for the unmeasurable harm caused to them.

It is not too late for us. It is not too late to protect northern Minnesota from a catastrophic, irreversible decision that does not have the consent of downstream communities. 

The DNR is now accepting comments on the draft permit to mine for PolyMet. Please comment before March 6, and tell the DNR, elected officials, and candidates around the state that this proposal is simply too risky for Minnesota and for Lake Superior.

PolyMet has divided us for too long. It is time for Minnesota to act, and to identify a better option. We stand ready to support leadership that would unify us around true economic development that celebrates our history without risking our future.

JT Haines, Bridget Holcomb, and Libby Bent are residents of Duluth and members of the group Duluth for Clean Water, which welcomed a delegation from Amnesty International to Duluth on Feb. 12 and 13.


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Comments (20)

Every Minnesotan should read this piece.

Sulfide mining is trading poisoned waters for extraction profits.

They will leave when they're done, and the jobs will go too.

Minnesota's land and waters cannot recover from sulfuric waste byproducts.

It simply cannot be done responsibly. .

The future is begging for preservation.

Extraction is permanent.

What is the MPCA for anyway?

bait and switch

Here is my view on how this is being sold. Jobs, jobs, jobs. This approach assumes that area residents have an inside track on these jobs. If these jobs are so remunerative applicants will come from literally everywhere. Glencore and their Polymet minions have no allegiance to the Iron Range and Arrowhead folks who will be left holding the bag if anything goes wrong, and no reason to hire them if someone else is more qualified and/or willing to work for less. Nothing and no one can cover the cost if our water resources (which get more valuable every single day) are poisoned.

Spreading feelings not facts

Mount Polley dam slope was at 77%, it was an engineering mistake, a human mistake.

The pristine forest, above that you write about, was mining land owned by United States Steel until the Depression in the 1930's when they turned it back to the state in lieu of taxes. It is located next to an mine that Cliffs owns and operates still today. The land Polymet is exchanging for this mining land, is actually pristine land that the public can utilize. It is not about jobs, it is the simple fact that a company is going to meet all the rules, regulations and laws in place and should be allowed to operate, no matter feelings. The taxes that will be paid to the state coffers and school trust funds over the years will be sustaining,so you and I do not have large increases in our tax bills. Polymet is planning on obtaining financial assurances to cover any type of problem along the way, to protect the tax payers. Since the early 1990's when the mining companies and the U.S. government agreed there MUST be financial assurances in place, there have been no tax payer monies utilized to fix issues. All 50 states mine something, it is either grown or mined.

The dam slope for Polymet will be at just 13%. Technically No comparison. Period.


Since the early 1990's when the mining companies and the U.S. government agreed there MUST be financial assurances in place, there have been no tax payer monies utilized to fix issues

Thanks for highlighting what will be the next thrust of Conservative mining proponents, gotta break the stranglehold of unneeded regulation, you know.

NEVER, EVER trust a rich man, (particularly one in control of a mining operation) as long as you draw breath. In the interest of comity, I'll leave the rest of that paraphrased verse to those that know it.


"Mount Polley dam slope was at 77%, it was an engineering mistake, a human mistake."
How does that make it any better? Are human mistakes going to magically disappear here? I don't trust your feeling that it can be done without causing harm.

Union Jobs?

Is there an agreement in place that the employer will recognize the union? How about a labor peace agreement, so the employer agrees to not interfere with an organizing drive and will allow the union access to the employees?

And what about the initial construction? Is there a signed agreement in place between Poly Met & the MN Building Trades? Will Poly Met be using it's leverage to get a better deal for it's contractors than local contractors get? Things like four 10 hour shifts rather than five 8's, or better over time rules (better for the company, worse for the trades folk.

Show me success

Thanks to the authors and to MinnPost for this article. I've been waiting for an example of a successful mine such as the proposed mine in Minnesota.Alas, it don't exist? The Strib has been hideously remiss in seemingly refusing to display the reality of the past.

Mine this

Eagle Mine, Michigan active mine

Flambeau Mine, Ladysmith Wis.

The contaminated water that flows into the Flambeau River contains copper, manganese, sulfate and iron that do not threaten the environment. There is no acid in the ground water that moves from the pit into the Flambeau River. The levels of copper, sulfate, manganese and iron in ground water samples are below the levels considered acceptable provided by the DNR,

Water can be treated properly.

Is it so hard for you to see facts?

The Flambeau Mine left groundwater pollution

The Flambeau Mine is an example of the short term jobs for long-term ruined natural resources.

"During the four year operation, the Flambeau Mine produced 181,000 tons of copper, 334,000 ounces of gold and 3.3 million ounces of silver. Under Wisconsin's mining laws, the mine conducted more than 1000 analyses on water samples and treated more than 600 million gallons of water in a state-of-the-art water treatment plant. During construction and operations, 85% of the workforce were local residents. More than 100,000 people visited the mine, taking in the view from the Visitors Center, high above the 181-acre site. Reclamation began in 1997 and since then has been completed.[1] The mine operated on the shores of the Flambeau River, a popular recreation river. The river provides habitat for a variety of aquatic and wildlife species.[2]

Pollution of the surface and ground water was not predicted in the planning and excavating of the mine. .."

Discharges poisoned a stream- it showed absolutely no sing of life- copper sulfate effluent still discharging (as of 2011 or so).

Polymet is a different environment, and the Flambeau use of limestone to neutralize sulfuric acid seems to have worked in that regard. The Polymet is no where near any limestone of that magnitude.

Flambeau did have a nice surface reclamation, but the underlying area is permanently poisoned.

You must have forgotten

Flambeau was the size of a big gravel pit, hardly a comparable comparison to PolyMet. And it was not a disseminated deposit. And all of the ore was hauled by rail to Canada for processing, where all of the waste was left; unlike PolyMet, which will be 99% waste (all of it reactive according to PolyMet's EIS), which would all be left right here in Minnesota for us to deal with "indefinitely."

MN has the same rule of law like Montana

In 1980, Congress passed CERCLA, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, and then directed the Executive Branch to implement financial requirements to ensure mining companies could afford to cover reclamation costs at the end of mining operations. Years passed and the EPA did nothing. Instead, states aggressively increased regulations for the mining industry, and added teeth to the laws already on the books to guarantee the financial wherewithal of companies.

In the decades since CERCLA was enacted, it has been individual states, like Montana, who have further filled the void created by federal bureaucrats’ inaction. States like Montana, in full cooperation with its federal partners, the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, began requiring the payment of bonds to cover reclamation costs beginning in the 70s. The Montana Metal Mine Reclamation Act (known as “MMRA”), for example, ties the financial assurance requirements of each mine to its individual permit, and each mine permit is scrutinized by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality on a continual basis. Those state-derived requirements, like all environmental policies, have grown more stringent over time and are modified on a regular basis for each mine operating in Montana.

The rule proposed under the Obama EPA merely duplicated state agency requirements, creating conflicts of law and bypassing local administrative authorities who are familiar with local mining and environmental concerns. The rule was not necessary for the protection of the environment, as some news coverage may have you believe, but instead was the result of pressure from environmental groups and special interests that routinely use lawsuits to fund themselves and to bring about unnecessary federal regulation.

The mining industry is critical to the state of Montana. Here in Treasure State, metal mining alone accounts for nearly 7,000 direct and indirect jobs, provides $579 million in labor income, and contributes over $1 billion dollars to Montana’s GDP.

We commend the EPA for deciding in favor of state regulation over unnecessary federal rules. The work done by individual states, in full partnership with the USFS and the BLM, to foster environmental stewardship and responsible development, without the heavy hand of the EPA, deserves more public recognition.

Extracting copper nickel (and cadmium and lead)

Uses huge quantities of water and fossil fuels. The ores that are high in sulfides need special processes that are not trivial nor are they completely manageable.

The concerns for long term protection of the waters and plants and animals of Minnesota are not just "feelings", or the idealistic "tree-hugging" that is so despised in the words of those who want this mining to go forward, they are the demands of any Minnesota citizen who wishes to preserve what cannot be replaced. We need not use everything NOW, just because we have it.

Looking at the processes required to extract these minerals, it is clear we risk environmental degradation and pollutants that will damage this land.

I invite readers to read about the mining process and see the concerns are much more than "feelings":

"Sulphur dioxide, one of the major contaminants, is recovered as sulphuric acid when present in sufficient quantity. Otherwise, to meet emission standards, sulphur dioxide and other hazardous gaseous wastes are controlled by scrubbing. Particulate emissions are commonly controlled by fabric filters and electrostatic precipitators.

Large amounts of water are used in flotation processes such as copper concentration. Most of this water is recycled back into the process. Tailings from the flotation process are pumped as slurry into sedimentation ponds. Water is recycled in the process. Metal-containing process water and rainwater are cleaned in water-treatment plants before discharging or recycling.

Solid-phase wastes include slags from smelting, blowdown slurries from sulphur dioxide conversion to sulphuric acid and sludges from surface impoundments (e.g., sedimentation ponds). Some slags can be reconcentrated and returned to smelters for reprocessing or recovery of other metals present. Many of these solid-phase wastes are hazardous wastes that must be stored according to environmental regulations."

There's no second chance to stop this project, and those who support it cannot guarantee their effect will somehow be different than many examples of pollution that accompany sulfide mining.

In accounting as in the real world, extraction is accompanied by depletion.
IMHO, the byproducts of this process are not acceptable.

"Containment" is temporary.


Our friends to the north did not outlaw the mining of sulfide bearing ore bodies. In fact, we asked Justyna Laurie-Lean, Vice President Environment and Regulatory Affairs for the Mining Association of Canada (MAC), this very question. “Much of Canadian deposits and host rock have sulfides, so such a ban would be ludicrous,” Laurie-Jean replied in an email. In addition, MAC’s 2017 Guide to the Management of Tailings Facilities talks to the management of sulfide tailings.

The term “sulfide mining” is slang, not a scientific or industry term. It is a term used by mining opponents to elicit concern and to confuse people into thinking that a mining company is producing something other than the minerals needed by society, like zinc, copper, lead and other important raw materials. These metals occur naturally as sulfide bearing mineral groups. There is no basis for describing a zinc, copper or any other mineral mine as a “sulfide mine.”

you do not understand hard rock mining

If you dig it up

It's mining. Rock was in the ground, now it's not. Just because you can't sell the sulfides doesn't change the fact that they were mined.


JD Lehr post from February 3, 2017

During Jay’s Anderson’s interview with Representative Nolan on WTIP this morning I heard something that is entirely untrue and deserves correction. I heard something to the effect that Polymet doesn’t intend to mine sulfides, but that sulfides are a by-product of the mining process. Not true.

The primary ore minerals in the Duluth Complex deposits are the SULFIDE minerals chalcopyrite, pentlandite and cubanite. When ore minerals such as these occur in higher concentrations they are considered ore deposits. Geologists refer to the Duluth Complex ore deposits as “disseminated sulfide deposits” or “magmatic sulfide deposits” or “polymetallic sulfide deposits” or “copper-nickel sulfide deposits”, but “sulfide” is always used because it is the correct term.

My point is that the mining companies are seeking to mine sulfides and I know exactly why Representative Nolan and Jay were misinformed this morning. The industry and non-ferrous mining advocacy groups such as Minnesota Mining have been using smoke and mirrors to deflect the negative connotations that surround the phrase “sulfide mine” or “sulfide mining” and for good reason. Every sulfide mine that has ever operated and closed in a humid environment such as northern Minnesota is polluting – this is a fact that industry geologists cannot dispute. Industry lobbyists and spokespeople will try to give examples but they can be debunked.

Another example of linguistic smoke and mirrors used by sulfide mining advocates is their campaign to use the term “precious minerals” or “precious metals” to refer to the Duluth Complex deposits. The Duluth Complex deposits are low-grade copper-nickel deposits with much lower amounts of platinum group elements (PGEs) and gold. Without the copper and nickel content of the ores, no one would currently consider mining these deposits only for their PGE and gold content. Yet I continually hear of these deposits referred to as precious minerals/metals. No. Copper and nickel are base metals. Yes, PGEs and gold are precious metals but calling the Duluth Complex deposits precious minerals deposits makes about as much sense as calling Target a restaurant simply because you can buy a slice of pizza there.

Prior to 2014 I had been watching the Polymet permit process from a distance and had intended to keep it that way until I went to one of the public hearings in Duluth that were held to receive public comment on the Polymet Supplemental Draft EIS. It was at the very moment when Senator David Tomassoni stood there shaking his fist at the crowd and shouted “this is not sulfide mining, this is copper-nickel mining” that I decided to become involved in the comment process and ended up submitting a 60 page report to WaterLegacy that was incorporated into their comments on the Polymet EIS.

My BS detector went off this like crazy this morning just like it did after hearing Tomassoni’s remarks a couple of years ago. I wonder if anyone ever pointed out to Tomossoni that his remarks made about as much sense as “that isn’t a fish, it’s a walleye”.

And I could write another page refuting what Nolan said this morning about the application of “modern technology” that will enable Polymet to become the first copper-nickel sulfide mine in the history of the planet to operate, close and not create water pollution. But none of those technologies – reverse osmosis, slurry wall construction, seepage capture and pump-back systems and wetland treatment – have ever been successfully applied at the SCALE that is proposed at Polymet. If Polymet and their consultants actually have an EFFECTIVE technology to mitigate acid mine drainage and IF they have the technology to eliminate seepage from tailings basins like they claim, they should abandon their mining proposal and market their new and extremely valuable intellectual property. After all, no other company on earth regardless of size – BHP, Rio Tinto, Glencore, Vale, US Steel - has been able to accomplish what Polymet claims will accomplish. Polymet should convert from a junior mining company to a tech startup and kick back and watch the royalty checks stream in. Well, alternative facts are especially popular today.




There is about 1.2% (one point 2) sulfur content in this hard rock, not like the mines pre 1970 out west that had a sulfur content of 30% (thirty).

You sent people to a website link that shows "smelting" of which this will not be done at the Polymet site. Misguided information is not factual no matter how many times you repeat it

the Flambeau Mine was not a success for the watershed

The groundwater contamination still has no solution, and Flambeau is long-since closed for production and jobs. Mitigation will continue longer than the actual mining.

"Sulfide mining" better describes non-ferrous extraction. Minnesotans are familiar with iron ore and its less-toxic byproducts, but may not know it is distinctly more troublesome than ferrous mining.

Minnesotans also remember Miles Lord, the mining companies' nemesis who questioned whether running tailings into Lake Superior was in fact harmless. Although mining spokesmen assured us It was not harmful, we found that it indeed WAS. It was pollution of Lake Superior as a matter of convenience. We have been deceived before, as have many who believed the assurances of mining spokespeople such as yourself.

The future costs of Polymet will be higher than the temporary benefit in jobs. There is no way we can fix what is going to be destroyed.

Copper and Sulfate effluents alone will permanently affect the waters and the organisms that live in it. Do you deny that?


Toxic chemicals and pollutants, no matter how they are deposited into the environment, are still toxic. PolyMet’s hydrometallurgical process is essentially a chemical smelter.

The trade offs between...

the possibilities of something going wrong and the number of jobs alone make this folly beyond consideration. Statistics regarding percentages of this or that or the kind of rock surrounding the mining are a distraction. The fact of the matter is something going wrong once. Only once. And the devestation will be beyond imagination. We were sold nuclear power and cigarettes and cola drinks in the same fashion. Only once. The land and water cannot pack their bags and move somewhere else. Humans can as can higher life forms. But for our health and we need to recognize that we are part of an ecosystem. Inseparable from it. May be briefly but not permanently. I do not want even my own organic waste in my bed. Only once. Let that become your mantra. Oh yea follow the money because it is not going to stay up there. It never has. I cite as example the struggling Iron Range. If mining was actually responsible and committed the range towns and people would not be struggling now. The mining profits would be caring for extractions of the past. Drive through and look at the rusted equipment and land alteration left behind. That is the evidence. The days of Range politicians “demanding” recompense from those who walked off with profit for past extraction are no longer with us. A high school here or there as evidence is not an accounting of the totality of what has been neglected. The new proposed tariffs are a shell game in place until the day after next election. Those will be the statistics worth giving attention.