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Requiem for our wetlands? What’s at risk in NE Minnesota

photo of ladyslipper flowers in bog
Although the DNR has approved its "permits to mine" for PolyMet, the impacts on state waters and water quality have yet to be approved by the MPCA and U.S. Army Corps.

Thousands of acres of wetlands in northeastern Minnesota are in danger, and only the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers can save them. These two agencies must rule on federally required permits related to water quality and wetlands. What’s at risk? Up to 7,694 acres of wetlands located in a region that supports the highest quality, diverse wetlands in Minnesota. 960 acres will be directly destroyed by PolyMet (in itself a huge loss), an additional 6,700 could be harmed indirectly by mining activities.

Judy Helgen

Photo by Deborah Rose
Judy Helgen

All this to support a short-term project lasting maybe 30 years? Affecting bogs that began forming a few thousand years ago?

Federal laws require that unavoidable losses of wetlands be compensated or mitigated by creating other wetlands or by purchasing credits from a “bank” of wetlands, often located far from the impacted area. The cost of purchase of banked wetlands from the state is $822 per acre. This could generate a bill of over $7 million for PolyMet, just to compensate for the mine’s potential impacts to wetlands.

Small wonder PolyMet/NorthMet has worked hard to reduce their potential “indirect losses” of wetlands from 6,700 acres down to a mere 261! (I hear the funeral bells peeling …). They did this by assigning several “factors” of harm to the vast acres of wetlands indirectly affected — such as changes in hydrology, effects from stockpiles/mine leakage, and arbitrarily limiting distances from the mine site. Any wetland affected by only two of the six factors was then excluded.

Bogs reclassified

Another tactic to reduce acres affected involved reclassifying bogs in the mine-impacted area as “raised” bogs, those influenced only by rainwater. The other type of bog (mineralotrophic) would be harmed by groundwater reductions caused by mining water withdrawals and by the mine’s pollution of groundwater. A state expert in bogs and fens was refused entry to the PolyMet mine site. Thus he could not perform the necessary water chemistry tests to determine the type of bogs there. Without knowing type, we don’t know what risks they face.

The PolyMet mine project poses the largest loss of wetland acreage from any single project in the state. This is unprecedented.

The public needs to know: Although the DNR has approved its “permits to mine” for PolyMet, the impacts on state waters and water quality have yet to be approved by the MPCA and U.S. Army Corps. On top of this, PolyMet now says it plans to expand the operation from the proposed excavation of 32,000 tons of ore rock per day to 118,000 tons per day, to make the mine financially viable. This expansion plan was not included nor considered in the state’s permitting process. Some call this “bait and switch.”

There is a spiritual side to this. Minnesotans care for our environment in all its forms, including wetlands and the biodiversity of species that depend on them. As a scientist and a person of faith, I support my and other churches’ efforts that promote “creation care” for our air, water, and land environments, and that includes wetlands.

Is it time to sing a Requiem for our precious wetlands? Should the bells toll? Can those entrusted with protecting the waters of Minnesota, waters that legally include wetlands, stand up and say “No! Minnesota should not allow this harm to our precious waters!”? The MPCA and the Corps operate under the Federal Clean Water Act (CWA), voted into law in 1972 by both parties of Congress, the Act created to protect lakes, rivers, streams and wetlands. It starts as follows:

The objective of this Act is to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters ….

Judy Helgen, Ph.D., is a retired research scientist from MPCA,  where she helped develop methods to protect wetlands water quality by examining the life that depends on them. Her book, “Peril in the Ponds: Deformed Frogs, Politics, and a Biologist’s Quest,” was published in 2012. Currently Helgen is writing a memoir that includes stories from ‘unsung heroes’ who worked to improve water quality in the state. She lives in Roseville.

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Comments (19)

  1. Submitted by Bob Barnes on 11/30/2018 - 06:50 pm.

    30 years is not short term, that’s over a third of a lifespan for most. Not to mention the countless millions added to Minnesota’s tax base, all the jobs created etc. There’s around 10 million acres of total wetlands in MN. Not a single wheel has been turned yet so let’s not claim the sky is falling.

    • Submitted by Bill Kahn on 12/01/2018 - 10:19 am.

      It is short term; short term would be, say, limiting your thinking to 30 generations or less. Everything can be counted or at least accurately estimated for those with short term counting difficulties. Jobs can cost more than they’re worth when the mitigations their creation make necessary is counted and paid for. As Ms. Helgen points out, some count wetlands differently, never mind jobs or supposed economic benefits. I’m less worried about the sky falling than about our brains turning to mush from accepting the thinking that went into this project (never mind the Trumpian substitute for logic required to move it as far as it has gone).

      • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 12/01/2018 - 04:11 pm.

        30 generations would be closer to 900 years (average years in a generation are 25 to 30 depending on which source you use). They have to follow some of the most strict environmental rules in the nation as well. A few acres of swamp isn’t going to ruin the environment but the estimated 500+ million a year for St Louis County will be a huge boon to the entire area. 300+ jobs with another estimated 600 indirect jobs is nothing to sneeze at.

        If you want computers, electrical wiring in your home, cell phones, tvs etc then someone has to mine the minerals to make all of those things.

  2. Submitted by joe smith on 12/01/2018 - 07:45 am.

    Here’s the great news, there are thousands and thousands acres of the same bog land up here. Better news, nobody and I mean nobody ever sees this swamp land. It is uninhabitable, untraveled and totally off the beaten trail. When you go to the BWCA, you get a permit and walk trails from lake to lake. When we were kids we went there and tried to forge our way to obscure lakes and areas (didn’t need permits), you soon found out that most were not reachable.

    As I’ve stated before, when I was young, the environmentalists told us taconite mining was going to ruin our precious Range. Fast forward 50+ years and I grouse hunt on the very land that was supposedly ruined. BTW, great fall season of bird hunting up here.

  3. Submitted by Anne Uehling on 12/01/2018 - 08:50 am.

    The wetland area in which Polymet is mining is known as the 100 mile swamp. Some of the wetlands are from surface water, some from ground. They feed into a much larger area.
    30 years is not a short term and when you have lived for 80 or 90 years, you see the effects on next generations. Taxable land, plant and animal habitat, pollution of surrounding land and waters (including the St. Louis River system (the longest river emptying into Lake Superior) will be affected for centuries.

  4. Submitted by Dennis Litfin on 12/01/2018 - 10:08 am.

    Bob……re: “…sky is falling”. That’s right. One does not wait until ‘the horse is out of the barn’ to close the door.

    • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 12/01/2018 - 04:14 pm.

      Mixing metaphors ? Your’s isn’t applicable. We heard the same claims when they started mining Taconite up there… and after all these years their claims still haven’t come to fruition. Seems most commenting here haven’t even bothered to read up on the project at all.

  5. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 12/01/2018 - 11:08 am.

    One’s heart sinks to see the total lack of comprehension about the environment in the post by Bob Barnes.

    A couple of hundred jobs, for two dozen years, versus a non-inhabitable planet?

    This incomprehension is at the base of why we are losing the Earth to man-made destruction, and have the really short-term space of about ten years to reverse it.

    • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 12/02/2018 - 07:51 am.

      I hunt, fish, camp etc. I understand the environment just fine. The State is getting more land than they are giving up (about 40 acres more). The estimated 10 billion dollars coming to St Louis County over the next 20 years far exceeds anything they would get from that land in any other scenario. Once the mining is done, the land will be reclaimed and all will be just fine.

      We heard these same exact claims 50 years ago (or more) over taconite mining. They never came true then either. If you want to look at environmental problems, focus on China. By buying stuff made in China, you support far more damage to the environment than anything going on in the US.

  6. Submitted by Molly Redmond on 12/01/2018 - 01:28 pm.

    Thirty years might be a big part of people’s life expectancy, but it is several lifetimes for so many of the animals Minnesotans love to fish for, to hunt, and to watch (ducks, deer, fish, songbirds, etc.). Many depend for survival on these wetlands and the foods and shelter they provide.
    There are several other concerns in addition to the animals. Despite good intentions, this type of mining has never been done without polluting its watershed. Never. A critical point: Lake Superior is what’s downstream in this watershed–it’s where these threatened wetlands eventually drain to. When the so-called safety measures fail, Lake Superior will be the sacrifice area.

    • Submitted by Josh Belleville on 12/01/2018 - 08:44 pm.

      So all the chemicals dumped into Lake Superior from the 20’s on into the 60’s and 70’s did what to water quality?

      That would be some good science to study.

  7. Submitted by Mike Link on 12/01/2018 - 01:34 pm.

    This is such a sad issue. Both our Senators have failed us in the mining issue. I understand their politics, but I am sorry that they do not use their position of strength to do something more to protect this landscape now that they are enabling the mine.

  8. Submitted by John Helland on 12/01/2018 - 11:27 pm.

    Thank you Judy Helgen as a scientist for elucidating this issue. Wetlands are important and we are talking about many thousands of acres.
    Where is Willard Munger when we need him?

  9. Submitted by Dave Carlson on 12/02/2018 - 12:06 am.

    Taconite mining did cause environmental damage… the tailings dumping into Lake Superior caused significant damage. But that mining is apples to oranges compared to the potential devastating effects of what Polymet is proposing. Beyond the 20-30 years and a couple hundred jobs, the tailings holding “lake” would be huge, and water quality and dam stability monitoring would occur for hundreds of years. There is a large question whether the company has the long-term finances for clean up or litigation should it fail… and these mines have always had pollution issues, and failures just three and four years ago:

    https://www.minnpost.com/earth-journal/2015/08/torrent-mustard-colored-waste-shows-lasting-risk-sulfide-mining/

    https://www.minnpost.com/earth-journal/2014/08/mine-waste-release-bc-raises-question-would-better-regulators-oversee-minnesot/

    We risk passing on the dire consequences to our grandchildren and future generations, and this could jeopardize the even greater benefits of long-term tourism in the region.

  10. Submitted by Dennis Litfin on 12/02/2018 - 08:59 am.

    Bob….Why did they stop dumping taconite tailings into lake Superior ?

    • Submitted by joe smith on 12/04/2018 - 09:43 am.

      Because Judge Miles Lord determined “asbestos like” material was detected in Lake Superior water. Reserve Mining was ordered to stop dumping tailings in Lake Superior. Fast forward 45 years later and the “asbestos like” material is still present in the same nearly undetectable levels. It was never directly proven the dumping of taconite tailings caused the issue, very controversial ruling up here 4 decades ago.

      • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 12/06/2018 - 09:36 am.

        A little revisionist history here. As an astute and aware 10 year old in 1964 the primary arguments about taconite mining expansion was tax policy not environmental concerns. The mining companies wanted some certainty on future tax levels before they invested in taconite mining processes. They got it through an amendment to the state constitution in 1964.

        Flash forward 10 years or so and we do get to an environmental debate: we have now filled in hundreds of acres of Lake Superior with taconite tailings. Local sportsmen see a direct fall of in fishing and scientists point to the dangers of asbestos:

        “This trial put the community of Silver Bay at odds. Reserve’s operations were tied to the livelihood of many in the community, but at the same time, the polluted water of Lake Superior posed an invisible threat to the lives of everyone. Results from federally-funded scientific studies revealed the damage the tailings discharge had caused: fish populations were harmed by the increase in water turbidity, while the presence of fibrous minerals—described in research findings as “asbestos-like” and thought to be carcinogenic—were detected by EPA chemists. Soon, the town’s struggle for economic well-being was squaring off with the town’s struggle for public health.”

        In the 1950s we saw little opposition to dumping stuff into Lake Superior, by the 70s folks started to have a problem, try to permit it today and even Donald Trump would be offended: it ain’t never gonna happen and for good reason.

        My personal definition of “conservative and conservationist” is “the cautious use of precious resources”. The Rs have turned that on it’s head:

        “Drill Bay Drill!”

  11. Submitted by Joe Musich on 12/05/2018 - 08:31 pm.

    The damage caused by taconite mining is still being debated. To say damage was not caused is wishful thinking. Remember the sulfide/sulfurous discussions as related to wild rice. ? Here is link to another educational read regarding taconite mining on sulfide bearing rock at the Dunka mine. Also an explanation why some taconite mining escape more over site. Simply stated the mines were in business before the clean water act. http://www.timberjay.com/stories/mining-vs-water,12329

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