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At issue in Minnesota’s sulfide mining debate: environmental justice

Wild rice on Itasca Lake
A treaty guaranty of rice gathering is meaningless if there is no rice to harvest.

In my earlier Community Voices piece responding to Gov. Tim Walz’s interview with Walker Orenstein about sulfide mining, there was an issue unexpressed because of space limitations: environmental justice for the Lake Superior Ojibwe bands. It may be the most important part, though.

Many people are trying to distinguish between the PolyMet and Twin Metals projects. That includes Tom Landwehr, who signed the PolyMet permit to mine when he was the DNR commissioner, but who argued in a May 24 Star Tribune commentary against the Twin Metals sulfide mine. The proposed Twin Metals processing facility is 12 miles from the proposed PolyMet mine pits. Landwehr correctly identified the ills associated with a sulfide mine (“A direct and certain consequence of such mining would be water and air pollution; destruction of the forest and wetland habitat of fish, mammals and birds …”) and the weakness of Minnesota law – including, presumably, the DNR’s non-ferrous mining rules – to address them, but his attempts to distinguish PolyMet and Twin Metals are entirely specious.

Parenthetically, the Minnesota DNR’s rules for non-ferrous mining are vague and weak and without standards. It’s not surprising that Landwehr would be worried about them. The Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy has petitioned the Supreme Court for a review of a Court of Appeals judgment affirming the validity of the rules. Do we want to be governed by laws and standards or the whim of whoever is in charge? We’ve seen recently what that leads to.

‘Pristine’ vs. ‘industrial’?

Landwehr waxed romantic and called the BWCA a sacred, virginal, pristine wilderness and everywhere else “an industrial mining district.” The Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, and many others, would disagree with that, however.

If you go to the Boundary Waters, you will see the very occasional magnificent white pine that towers above the rest. They’re the virgins; most of the Boundary Waters is second growth. The big trees were just too little to mess with back when the area was logged off. Imagine what the place looked like with giant stands of white pine.

So, the Boundary Waters was an industrial district once, too. But this artificial distinction without a difference has caused some people, including the organization that Landwehr now heads, to abandon the St. Louis River watershed and offer it, practically speaking, as a sacrifice to the mining interests.

Steve Timmer
Steve Timmer
The supposed difference between PolyMet and Twin Metals is the Laurentian Divide. The two proposed projects are on opposite sides of the divide: PolyMet on the St. Louis River watershed side, where water flows to Lake Superior, and Twin Metals on the Rainy River basin side, flowing near and through the BWCA to Hudson’s Bay. The Laurentian Divide only describes what happens to the surface water, however.

The Laurentian Divide does not explain what happens to groundwater. According to the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, in a 2015 report, groundwater pollution from a PolyMet mine operation would also flow north into the Boundary Waters. It is reported in the linked Timberjay article that the DNR acknowledged that the GLIFWC could be right.

Watersheds are equally important to protect

This is all beside the point, though. Divide-the-baby faux environmentalism is distasteful. It is just as important to protect the waters of the St. Louis River watershed as it is the Rainy River Basin. There is de facto racism in placing the romantic attachment of outdoor enthusiasts to the BWCA over the interests of the Ojibwe and the manoomin, the Ojibwe word for wild rice. Perhaps the manoomin and the indigenous industry it supports are even more important.

In the grocery store, a pound of wood-parched Ojibwe wild rice goes for about $10 a pound, the same as a pound of grass-fed ground beef from southern Minnesota, and it has a much smaller carbon footprint.

Wild rice gathering in the Ceded Territories is guaranteed to the Ojibwe by treaty. That includes the St. Louis watershed.

Copper mining kills wild rice. A treaty guaranty of rice gathering is meaningless if there is no rice to harvest.

Mining enthusiasts say that the benefits of mining outweigh the environmental risk and harm. But the benefits and the risk and harm are not equally distributed. The mining supporters want to play poker with other people’s money, including that of the Fond du Lac Band of Ojibwe.

There are already two Superfund sites on the St. Louis River. One of them is called the U.S. Steel site. If Landwehr is right about the inevitability of pollution from a sulfide mine – and he is – the PolyMet mine threatens not only the wild rice but the decades-long cleanup efforts already undertaken on the St. Louis watershed and estuary.

Equity demands equal concern for and protection of both sides of the Laurentian Divide.

Steve Timmer is retired after practicing law in the Twin Cities for over 40 years. His Twitter handle is @stevetimmer.


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Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by joe smith on 09/12/2019 - 08:56 am.

    Environmental justice? What does that even mean? Couple of points. First, 2019 permitting process is strict and designed for safe environmental mining, not sure why you think otherwise. Second, white pines have a life span of 100-200 years depending on location. Those old growth towering pines you imagine would have been burned in a forest fire after they died. If you think the white pines that were cut in late 1890’s and early 1900’s up here on the Arrowhead, were 500 years old, you are mistaken. Those mature pines were in their final stage of life. Mother Nature has regenerated forests since the beginning of time by fire. Logging is good for the land not bad. Is that what environmental justice means?

    • Submitted by richard owens on 09/12/2019 - 04:12 pm.

      Environmental Justice- what DOES that mean?

      I can tell you what environmental INjustice is. That is 532 Superfund sites just in Indian Country. Take a minute and see what the mining companies have left the tribes of our native Americans, arguably one of the most vulnerable and least powerful people in the local community. They have treaties that get short shrift.

      This is neither just, nor is it in the spirit of promises made to these tribes. It is allowed by well-funded lawyers and courts that serve corporate needs.

      All across the country, mining and oil and gas companies have had their way with our nationals mineral resources, only to file bankruptcy when they’re done, lay off the workers, and leave an environmental mess for the taxpayers of our country to clean up (or not.)

      I ask anyone if they would allow their own land to be so treated.
      Superfund sites are the continuing insult to people who live there.

      Mining Companies rarely cleanup their mess, and they can stay in court for many many years (like the famous environmental catastrophe caused by a careless oil ship captain that spilled in Prudoe Bay Alaska 11 million gallons). The court found them negligent, fined them $500 billion dollars.
      The tanker captain, Joseph Hazelwood, was acquitted of being intoxicated while at the helm. He was convicted of negligent discharge of oil — a misdemeanor. He was fined $50,000 and sentenced to 1,000 hours of community service.Ten cents on the dollar is what they awarded us,

      Litigation lasted for decades. Exxon paid a fraction of an Anchorage jury’s initial award of $500 billion in punitive damages. Bob Day saw some compensation, but didn’t reveal how much. “It stretched out for years and years,” he said, adding that some victims had died before receiving any money.
      [end quote]

      Taxpayers will pay. Wildlife fish and fauna will pay. Native plants and fungi will pay the price. Copper nickel and precious metals will be sold on the commodities market and might even end up in a $1100 cell phone that lasts 3 years.

      Why not defend your own lands in your own neighborhood? It will be taxpayers work to finish what they start, if history is prologue.

    • Submitted by Eric Snyder on 09/12/2019 - 04:22 pm.

      “Environmental justice? What does that even mean?”

      You could do some homework and immerse yourself in the literature on this topic. It might be helpful since your comments appear to reveal little to no understanding of the concept. Here’s a journal to help get you going:

      The aims and scope fo the journal (from the website): “Environmental Justice is the essential peer-reviewed journal that explores the equitable treatment of all people, especially minority and low-income populations, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. Published bimonthly, Environmental Justice covers the adverse and disparate health impact and environmental burden that affects marginalized populations all over the world. The Journal facilitates open dialogue among the many stakeholders involved in environmental justice struggles: communities, industry, academia, government, and nonprofit organizations.”

      • Submitted by joe smith on 09/12/2019 - 06:27 pm.

        Word salad, that is all I see. We have minerals and metals that everyone uses in the ground here, let’s mine them. As far as the sky falling if you mine up here on the Range, I’ve heard it before in the 60’’s when changing from iron ore to taconite. The “experts” said it would ruin the Range, I’m still waiting.
        I’m still trying to figure out how mining hurts minorities and low income folks…. Total bunk!

    • Submitted by Steve Timmer on 09/12/2019 - 04:38 pm.

      You missed the point, Joe. The point was that calling the BWCAW one thing and everything else an “industrial district” takes a short-sighted view of the nature of environmental protection.

  2. Submitted by Tom Berkelman on 09/12/2019 - 01:03 pm.

    It’s disappointing that our top elected “leaders” can proclaim the necessity of holding 15 Conversations to Legalize Marijuana around the state yet they refuse to publicly discuss the critical environmental/health issue of pouring toxins into our public waters. You can’t make it up. And Lt. Gov. Flanagan continues to remain silent as her indigenous heritage is once again sacrificed for a few hundred jobs … at the expense of the same jobs for the wild rice industry. I guess it’s simply a matter of priorities/politics.

  3. Submitted by Joe Musich on 09/12/2019 - 09:15 pm.

    There are a lot of crazy things going with environmental and environmental justice issue. The mining fiasco in Minnesota is undoubtedly the most outright bat guano of them all. The degree of destruction of the water supply if just one tiny mistake is made will be astronomical. There is no question about that being the case. Even pro mining proponents understand that waste areas are needed. The best these folks can argue is that the barriers will work. That is just not enough for me when who gets the profits and the actual numbers of jobs are factored. It never will be if we risk to destroy most of this state’s water supply which would leave the citizens who do not have winter homes in
    Florida without and parched.

  4. Submitted by Steve Timmer on 09/13/2019 - 10:12 am.

    Here is a complaint filed in US District Court in Minnesota by the Fond du Lac band on September 10th, against the US EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers for their permitting decisions on water discharge and wetlands destruction for PolyMet. It lays out in much greater detail the band’s treaty rights and the damage that PolyMet would cause to them.

    • Submitted by Steve Timmer on 09/13/2019 - 02:43 pm.

      Here is paragraph six to the complaint:

      “PolyMet, a corporation whose majority shareholder is Glencore, a Swiss-based mining company, proposes to construct and operate the NorthMet Mining Project. Many of PolyMet’s mining and reclamation plans for an open pit mine are still unfinished or tentative, despite the issuance of all necessary permits to begin construction. The mine will destroy a large intact area of pristine wetlands, have a permanent reactive waste rock stockpile, a tailings basin built on top of an old existing tailings basin that currently contaminates ground and surface water, and a pit lake requiring water treatment in perpetuity.”

    • Submitted by Steve Timmer on 09/14/2019 - 10:23 am.

      Here’s paragraph 102 of the complaint, which speaks to the issue of PolyMet mine waste flowing into the BWCAW:

      The Band commented that the FEIS relied on a hydrology model in MODFLOW that was fundamentally flawed and was inappropriately used for numerous purposes in environmental review. MODFLOW cannot generate reliable environmental impact predictions because it was calibrated with data from different periods in time. The Tribal Cooperating Agencies discovered this error after independently reviewing the FEIS’s hydrology model, and then corrected the calibration. When properly calibrated, the model showed that groundwater will flow north from the Mine Site after closure and eventually outflow to Birch Lake and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, which are located in the Rainy River basin.

      • Submitted by Steve Timmer on 09/14/2019 - 10:24 am.

        Here’s paragraph 103 on the same subject:

        The Corps acknowledged that the Tribal Cooperating Agencies’ analysis was correct, but then discounted the probability of northward flow, based on PolyMet’s rationale that it was unlikely due to a groundwater mound that would form and prevent northward flow of groundwater after closure. The Tribal Cooperating Agencies pointed out that this theory was physically impossible, and requested a technical discussion on this issue, but the Corps flatly refused to do so. In relying on MODFLOW, the Corps accepted PolyMet’s approach, which was inconsistent with accepted modeling methodology and included an unacceptable calibration error.

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