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Minnesotans must demand answers to key questions about PolyMet

MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein
PolyMet building

Children are born with a natural sense of curiosity. They do not just accept what they are told. They ask, “Why?” On the issue of PolyMet, potentially the first copper-sulfide mine in Minnesota’s history, it is time we follow the example of our kids by searching for real answers instead of simply going along with “because I said so.”

Former Gov. Arne Carlson
MinnPost file photo by James Nord
Former Gov. Arne Carlson
Let us start with what we know.

We know that the process used to grant PolyMet’s permits was highly suspect, with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency suppressing the alarming concerns of an EPA scientist who declared that the PolyMet wastewater permit violated the Clean Water Act.

We know that PolyMet will produce a 900-acre lake of toxic wastewater to be held in place for centuries by a tailings dam nearly as tall as the Statue of Liberty. In January, a dam in Brazil of similar design collapsed, killing 250 people. PolyMet and the Brazil mine used the same dam consultant.

We know that PolyMet, the Canadian company ostensibly responsible for cleaning up the inevitable acid mine waste that comes with copper-sulfide mining, has no revenue, no discernible assets, and is only a shell company for Glencore, which owns over 70% of PolyMet’s stock.

Richard Painter
Richard Painter
We also know that Glencore, a notorious Swiss company founded by Marc Rich, an international fugitive who fled the United States to escape prosecution, now has as its chairman Tony Hayward, who led British Petroleum during the Deepwater Horizon oil catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico. Vladimir Putin awarded Russia’s Order of Friendship to Glencore’s CEO following Glencore’s suspicious business dealings with a Russian state oil company. Glencore is now under investigation by British and U.S. authorities for illegal business practices.

Further, Glencore is not a signatory to PolyMet’s permit to mine with the State of Minnesota, meaning that Glencore can spend the first few years of the mine’s operations gobbling all the profits, then once the mine inevitably pollutes, it can simply have PolyMet declare bankruptcy and leave Minnesota taxpayers on the hook for environmental cleanup costs that could exceed $6 billion. This is the amount that Vale, the company responsible for the Brazilian disaster, has set aside to cover its costs.

Finally, we know that, despite calls from Minnesota’s medical professionals, there has been no health-impact study into the potential risks to all people in northeastern Minnesota from acid mine pollution in their drinking water.

Chris Knopf
Chris Knopf
In spite of all this, there has not been a single legislative hearing or any commitment from Gov. Tim Walz, House Speaker Melissa Hortman or Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka that they will investigate the numerous red flags surrounding PolyMet.

So, like our children, we ask, “Why?”

One reason may be the close ties between Walz and PolyMet. The governor’s two top advisers – his chief of staff and deputy chief of staff — worked for the law firm that represents PolyMet. Indeed, Walz’s deputy chief of staff was one of PolyMet’s top outside lawyers and did not leave that post until days before joining the Walz administration.

This apparent conflict of interest may or may not impact the governor’s thinking, but how would we know? The governor has repeatedly refused to meet with citizens and nonprofit organizations regarding these issues, nor has he been willing to answer any questions relating to PolyMet.

It is imperative that we, the people, and the media not only ask the following questions, but forcefully demand answers because it will be ordinary citizens who suffer the damage and pay the bill for PolyMet’s pollution. We can rest assured that our public officials who are now silent will express surprise and point the finger of blame elsewhere.

  • Since these are the most important and far-reaching environmental permits in Minnesota’s history, why are our leaders refusing to hold public legislative hearings into PolyMet?
  • Why have the governor and attorney general refused to investigate the corruption at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency?
  • Under the best circumstances, mercury, arsenic and other dangerous chemicals will leach from PolyMet into the waters of Lake Superior that provide drinking water to tribes and the people of Duluth. Why has the governor refused to perform a health study into these effects as was requested by the medical community?
  • If the PolyMet dam collapses as the dam did in Brazil, how will the governor and Legislature cover the anticipated $6 billion cleanup costs? We know that PolyMet has no financial assets, so what taxes will be raised and what programs will be cut?

Arne Carlson is a former governor of Minnesota (1991-99); Richard Painter is the S. Walter Richey Professor of Corporate Law at the University of Minnesota Law School; Chris Knopf is an attorney and executive director of Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness.


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Comments (19)

  1. Submitted by Richard Owens on 12/06/2019 - 09:57 am.

    Bravo to our Minnesota statesmen.

    Clear concise factual and provocative.

    WHY indeed.

    The only issue I would like to question is that of “clean-up” and the costs associated with “clean-up”. Chances are, the acidification of the watershed from acidic discharges would be permanent for the flora and fauna of the St. Louis River and its Superior delta. A mere .1 change in pH produces dramatic results to life support.

    Walz should recuse on this matter if he wants us to support his worthy state-wide agenda. It is true that Republicans don’t care about the environment if they can still hunt (and they think they will be able to catch walleyes).

    Mining, wherever it is done, eventually produces a desperation that makes a few good jobs somehow the great hope. When the mineral wealth is gone and the land and water are poisoned, desperation will remain for those who work for the mine companies for a few years.

  2. Submitted by Steve Timmer on 12/06/2019 - 10:52 am.

    If PolyMet’s tailings dam fails, which it bought on the cheap out of LTV’s bankruptcy, this what what the Embarrass River, and maybe the St. Louis, too will look like. This toxic sludge would leach heavy metals downstream, through the Fond du Lac Reservation and the city of Duluth, into Lake Superior, in perpetuity.

    • Submitted by Richard Owens on 12/06/2019 - 11:54 am.

      Thank you, Steve Timmer, for all your work opening the eyes of those who would trade Minnesota’s beauty and bounty for a few jobs for a few years.

      The authors have thrown down the gauntlet on the administration’s quiet support for sulfide mining. They should not hide behind agencies that might be captive to the extraction industry.

      It is past time for careful and intentional decision making that considers the risks and the benefits, including the track record of the mining company, and the damages left elsewhere in this wet environment sulfide mining process.

      Maybe the MPCA and DNR will get the message and reform themselves accordingly.

    • Submitted by Peder Otterson on 12/18/2019 - 12:52 pm.

      A bit late to add my comments to the MinnPost article on Polymet, but here it is. I was DNR Area Hydrologist for NE MN from the 70s thru the 80s. Before that, I had occasion to witness the impact of Reserve Mining’s dumping of tailings into Lake Superior long before they were forced kicking and screaming to the current disposal site at Mile Post Seven. Forget about the health issues of the asbestiform fibers that finally settled the case. I remember how the offshore waters from Silver Bay to Duluth became turquoise in color because of the finely suspended solids in the tailings. And still the dumping continued. And then there was the Acid Rain concern of the 80s. I remember as Area Hydrologist, visiting Tait Lake off the Gunflint Trail, a small, landlocked lake sensitive to any acid rain already in the atmosphere. The water was crystal clear. And not for a good reason. The acidic waters of the lake had killed off the local microflora and fauna. Fortunately, things have gotten better since then. But the history and the warning posts are there for everyone to see.

  3. Submitted by Mark Voorhees on 12/06/2019 - 12:26 pm.

    Thank you to the writers on this article to keep this conversation going until someone from the legislature or governor does the right thing.

  4. Submitted by Don Arnosti on 12/06/2019 - 04:19 pm.

    Waiting for this government to come around and serve the long-term public interest is a fools errand. Both major political parties are complicit. Our regulatory agencies and many politicians are serving corporate interests – in this case international mining interests.

    The lengths that the former leadership of the MPCA (one of whom now serves in the DNR as Assistant Commissioner) took to issue a permit to PolyMet with NO LIMITS on pollution is proof positive.

    We need to reformulate the MPCA and make it the Pollution Prevention Agency, with true public servants as leaders!

  5. Submitted by Tom Berkelman on 12/06/2019 - 04:21 pm.

    And – at least – yet another disturbing question :

    WHY did the Star Tribune refuse to run this commentary?

  6. Submitted by Jim Koepke on 12/06/2019 - 04:38 pm.

    To say the dam in Brazil was of a similar design is a bit of a leap. The LTV dam was built using constant compression. The dam is not going anywhere this year, next year, or 500 years from now. I recently purchased a house a few miles away on a lake the area drains in to. Concerned? No, or I wouldn’t have bought it. Why am I so sure of the safety of the dam? I know the man who built it. I worked there. I have no concerns.

  7. Submitted by Joe Musich on 12/06/2019 - 10:39 pm.

    Both of these projects are unneeded. But will be because capitalists want them. it is about further filling their pockets. Conservation and recycling will suffice, but push,push,push they will and then escape to their enclaves.

  8. Submitted by Marybeth Luing on 12/07/2019 - 11:20 am.

    Where are the voices of concern from the paper and logging industry, as well as tourism? All will be seriously affected as acidification of water becomes acid rain when smaller areas of pooled, contaminated water evaporate. Many have already observed this, yes. Where are their voices in this letter?

  9. Submitted by Joe Smith on 12/09/2019 - 01:14 pm.

    Pass the permitting process and start mining!

  10. Submitted by Susu Jeffrey on 12/10/2019 - 09:50 pm.

    PolyMet and Twin Metals=Temporary Jobs–Permanent Pollution

  11. Submitted by Lynn Levine on 12/11/2019 - 11:09 am.

    When I moved to Minnesota in 1969 Don Fraser was successfully fighting some type of horrible toxic development in the Boundary Waters. This is my first memory of being proud to be a Minnesotan. Now, 50 years later, I understand that every gain we make is followed by another onslaught.
    I am so disappointed that our so called Democratic representatives Tim Walz, Peggy Flanagan, Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith support this attack on the very pinnacle of Minnesota’s gifts.
    The Fond du Lac reservation is downstream from this mine. I believe the objective science that says children and elders are at risk from contaminated water. Tim Walz believes the science that is being done by the amoral company that stands to profit from this mine. In addition to everything else, this is environmental racism at its worst.
    I cannot believe that Amy Klobuchar, who wants to run for President, is not being confronted on the national stage, with her corrupt support for this reprehensible and dangerous project.

    • Submitted by Eric Snyder on 12/12/2019 - 05:00 pm.

      I’m in total agreement, and I know others are as well.

      It’s the easiest of environmental choices and there’s no excuse for Klobuchar and others to not make it. The choice is whether we want to pollute the boundary waters and be stuck with a huge and long-term cleanup bill, or not.

      Klobochar, Smith, et al., has sold us out. There should be political consequences for this.

  12. Submitted by Paula Thomsen on 12/12/2019 - 10:17 am.

    “..same dam consultant.” Ha ha ha ha, that says a lot! In my opinion corporate greedy actions damn them to perpetual dissatisfaction and loneliness in life. They’re addicted to profits over people, and out of touch with hard working Minnesotans.

    Corporate greed thinks big. The good people of Minnesota need to think bigger and get active in politics. Ask state leaders the hard questions. Demand transparency. Get money out of politics. Educate voters. If you want a democracy and not a dictatorship, then seek the truth, don’t be dazzled by con men.

  13. Submitted by Janette Dean on 12/12/2019 - 11:17 am.

    Indeed, copper-nickel sulfide mining by anyone in freshwater-abundant Minnesota — let alone multinational companies tied to the most dangerous oligarchs in the world including Vladimir Putin — is simply unfathomable. Minnesota should not be a traitor state nor a suicidal state in risking and sacrificing its precious ecosystems and, therefore, its future generations of life species and people to the reckless dangers of sulfide-mining in a water-rich state like Minnesota. #StopPolymet and also Twin Metals once and for all! There are better places where copper could be more safely obtained and that includes places where much more urgent copper recycling can be undertaken even if can’t yet entirely meet all demands. Necessity is also the mother of invention and, therefore, copper alternatives and advances in the more frugal use of it should also be undertaken to stop the harm of sulfide mining in other dangerous locations as well where sulfide mining is being undertaken far too recklessly at great detriment to that particular region. Yes, we need jobs in all our countries, but not those that simultaneously harm the local environments and the home planet upon which we also depend. Support green jobs and green industries above all others which means we must also stop Line 3 and deny all water permits for that highly anachronistic and dangerous fossil fuels projects. I am constantly amazed at how these easy decisions against harmful projects are so hard for many of the people supporting them who should know much better. In addition, if indigenous people with their wise earth history in living sustainably aren’t in favor of a project, their advice should be heeded above all others along with the most careful ecological scientists who understand the multiple ramifications of major disruptions to specific ecosystems.

    • Submitted by Janette Dean on 12/12/2019 - 12:16 pm.

      FYI: I meant to type a capital M in #StopPolyMet (which can also signify the monstrosity it would be for our beloved state of Minnesota which PolyMet wishes to ).

  14. Submitted by Kyle Richardson on 12/14/2019 - 06:50 pm.

    I am now convinced that the “Clean Car” action Walz is touting is little than a means to “green” PolyMet as a much needed supply of copper for our electric cars. That seems like it will be the new spin – it is already argued in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. With former PolyMet lawyers as Chief and Deputy Chief of Staff, and PolyMet plants at various state agencies, I doubt much, if anything, will stand in the way of this project. Seems to me that the courts are the only option.

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