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Environmental review: Sen. Bakk revealed why a mineral withdrawal study makes sense

Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk
Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk

The following is an editorial from The Timberjay of Ely/Tower/Cook, Minnesota.

Sen. Tom Bakk spoke the truth at a recent community joint powers board meeting in Ely, and in doing so he highlighted why those concerned with the risks posed by the just-released Twin Metals mine proposal have pushed for completion of a study on a proposed mineral withdrawal.

For years, Twin Metals supporters have claimed that the study was somehow short-circuiting the established process, and that any attempt to foreclose the possibility of a mine short of the completion of an environmental impact statement is somehow illegitimate.

“Let’s follow the science. If it’s proven it can be done safely, then let’s do it,” has been the standard line from mine supporters for the past several years.

Unfortunately, that isn’t the question that the environmental review process is designed to answer. As Sen. Bakk noted, the environmental review, which is the initial part of the permitting process, is designed to better understand the risks and attempt to mitigate those risks to the extent that’s financially feasible. That process is not designed to answer the more fundamental questions of whether a proposed project makes sense or poses too great a risk to allow to move forward.


“So, once they start down that road of applying for those permits it’s pretty hard to stop,” said Bakk.

Whether the Twin Metals project can be done safely would not be addressed by an environmental impact statement (EIS) or a permitting review, which is why mine supporters are being disingenuous, or simply reflecting their misunderstanding, when they claim otherwise. The reality is that a major sulfide mine is going to have significant, negative environmental effects. It will never be “safe” from an environmental perspective. Whether those effects or risks are acceptable is a political question, not one that will be determined or even considered by an EIS or the subsequent permitting process. Major industries have long understood that once a project begins the environmental review process, the larger political decision has essentially already been made that the project should advance. As Sen. Bakk stated: “The truth is, the environmental review process is not intended to stop projects.”

So, when does society ask the fundamental questions? Such as, is a sulfide mine located directly upstream from the nation’s most spectacular water-based wilderness a good idea? And how will the economic costs balance out against the economic gains that such a mine might bring?

There actually is a process for reviewing these larger public interest questions associated with a project like Twin Metals — and that’s the study that was under way as part of the proposed mineral withdrawal, at least until the Trump administration opted to end it just months before it was due for completion.

Rather than spend a decade and hundreds of millions of dollars conducting an environmental review of a project that could ultimately be disastrous for the region’s long-term economic and environmental health, the two-year study was supposed to assess the economic costs and benefits of the proposed mine and answer the larger question of whether this was the right place for this most dangerous form of mining.

This wasn’t a made-up process simply invented by environmentalists to try to scuttle the Twin Metals proposal. The mining withdrawal process was established in federal law decades ago as a way to protect other public values from exploitive uses or for reserving federal lands for a particular public purpose or program. The withdrawal process, which invariably includes a study, examines the bigger questions about the costs and benefits associated with a project, or whether its location is appropriate given the inherent risks.

These are the broader questions that Minnesota and the Walz administration must have answers to before agreeing to undertake any kind of environmental review. The administration should not only insist that the Trump administration release the data gathered to date for the aborted federal withdrawal study, but that the feds actually complete the study through a fair and transparent process. If not, the state of Minnesota should conduct its own examination of those issues. Only then, can Minnesotans make a fully-informed decision about the actual merits of a sulfide mine just upstream from the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. If a state EIS begins on a mine plan, those fundamental questions will never be answered and Minnesota will risk losing one of its most spectacular assets without ever really having a debate.

Republished with permission.

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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by richard owens on 01/03/2020 - 02:51 pm.

    The Dunka Pit is a smaller example of acid-mining leachate that remains after a layer of sulfide rock was opened up for mineral extraction. Now closed but still leaching acid into the groundwater, why not see a demonstration of how it can be fixed.

    Likely it CANNOT be “fixed” or “cleaned up”, as there are abandoned mine pollutants poisoning the land and waters all over this country waiting for “Superfund” monies to actually clean them up. Most of the old mining companies who created the mess are bankrupt when the last shovel has been extracted, so Republicans’ tax money will supplement any efforts.

    The Dunka Pit is 3 1/2 miles SE of Babbit. Let’s watch them clean it up and take notes, before we fall for another “bankrupt” mess and Superfund promise.

    This article too comes from the Timberjay:
    http://www.timberjay.com/stories/mining-vs-water,12329

  2. Submitted by Joe Musich on 01/03/2020 - 07:51 pm.

    The entire state is being railroaded for literally nothing. The environment seems to never have matter to too many in NE MN.

  3. Submitted by John Kantar on 01/04/2020 - 09:06 am.

    Why won’t Senator Klobuchar, Senator Smith, and Governor Walz take a strong position to protect our water from the ravages of sulfide mining? We need some real political courage from our elected representatives on this. I’m glad Senator Bakk spoke out to clarify what is going on. No water no life.

    • Submitted by Julie Stroeve on 01/04/2020 - 06:21 pm.

      isn’t that the truth, John Kantar…Bakk has been way too silent on way too many milestones in this mining permitting business. at least now he’s talking about a mining withdrawal concept that heretofore has NEVER been mentioned. so late in the process! my position is and has always been that there is no risk analysis that doesn’t put the Boundary Waters in jeopardy. short term – long term. doesn’t really matter. there’s NO plan that guarantees the maintenance of healthy Boundary Waters. and that’s where the conversation should begin and end. if the senators and the governor and the local district leadership would simply come up with an alternative economic stimulus initiative, everyone would win and no one would lose. District 8 needs jobs — so let’s get them jobs! it doesn’t mean that toxic mining is the only means to an end. Minnesotans are well meaning, creative, and economic generators. We can do this. Let us begin the work toward making District 8 a job generator for Minnesota.

      • Submitted by Barry Tungseth on 01/05/2020 - 10:27 am.

        Trying to explain that to the majority locals in the Ely area is like pounding your head against a brick wall. They believe mining is the only answer. An example is the Twin Metals guy on camera stating, “I`m a third generation miner, trying to raise a forth generation miner”. As far as they are concerned, they want the BWCA reverted to the tax roles for cabins, roads, and recreational motorized trails and waterways. It does not matter to them the longevity of the mining jobs created, pollution, or anything else except the short term gain. They do not care if the Ely area will revert to the same situation it is in now, because they can`t see that far ahead. They complain about the business owners who are not “from Ely”, and although most businesses in the area are owned by those from other areas or states, they would rather they leave and go back where they came from. The “we were here first” is a common thread in their conversation, but if you bring up the fact the Native Americans were there first you`ll hear the typical, “but we won the war” speech. I agree with your thought about getting jobs up there, but you`ll never convince most to that path. pollution or not.

  4. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 01/05/2020 - 10:32 am.

    It seems that the studies all attempt to quantify the risk presented by sulfide mining and then decide if it is an acceptable risk for the state to permit to occur.

    Implying that if all does go bad the state is ultimately responsible for potentially billion of dollars in remediation costs.

    Knowing two things: the high end cost of disaster and the probability of it occurring would allow these private mining companies to go into the private insurance market and buy coverage. Then they go back to the state with the iron clad guarantee of protection for the state.

    This will never happen because the economics of this do not work unless the state is the one left holding the risk.

    Separating job creation from assuming environmental risk is the key element here. Well paying jobs on the range are critical. We have an entire department in the state with DEED to make those things happen. Give the mining companies every incentive that we can for them to create jobs: TIF and other tax benefits, incentives, etc…

    Do not give them the incentive they most want: protection from billions of dollars of environmental consequences.

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