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Minnesota should become the leader in responsible mining

MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein
The Iron Man statue is located at the entrance to the Minnesota Discovery Center outside of Chisholm.

For the last 30 years we have led District #11 of the United Steelworkers union (USW) in the northwestern quarter of the country, based here in Minnesota. To quote a frequent insurance TV ad, “We know a thing or two about mining because we’ve seen a thing or two.”

Emil Ramirez
Emil Ramirez
The USW, representing workers in both the U.S. and Canada, is the largest union representing miners in North America. Over the years, we’ve represented workers in iron ore in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Wyoming. We’ve also represented workers in copper, gold, silver, lead, trona, potash, uranium, salt, limestone, rare earth minerals, platinum, and, in Canada, metallurgical coal and asbestos.

We’ve also been the union, that, since our formation in 1941, has spoken out on environmental issues, the human health effects of toxic exposures in the workplace and our communities, and workers’ rights. In 1948, the infamous Donora Incident, caused by a temperature inversion that trapped fumes from a zinc smelter in the Mon Valley, killed 20 people and sent thousands to the hospital. That was our community, and it led our union to convene the first anti-air-pollution conference in the country, ultimately leading to passage of the Clean Air Act, which we supported.

In 1990 we issued a groundbreaking report at our 1990 convention, “Our Children’s World,” which identified climate change as the most important environmental issue facing our generation, long before most environmental organizations recognized its singular importance. In 2006, we updated that report, publishing “Securing Our Children’s World,” and called on the labor movement to join with the environmental movement to create a new partnership, saying that “it isn’t a choice between good jobs and a clean environment, it’s both or neither.” We founded the BlueGreen Alliance, a partnership of unions and environmental organizations, to make that vision a reality. We always put our money where our mouth is.

Today we want to issue another challenge, first to Minnesotans and our elected officials, but then to all Americans, to step up and lead the global movement for responsible mining. Why Minnesota? 

First, we are one of the five largest non-fuel mining states in America. Second, we have top-notch research facilities that have provided technological answers to vital resource issues for decades, such as the magnetic separation and flotation that was developed at the University of Minnesota and created the taconite industry. We are known leaders in water purification technologies.

Robert Bratulich
Robert Bratulich
More important, we have watched with anger, and sometimes with shame and despair, as the battles we have fought for workers’ rights, for health and safety on the job and in our communities, have been eroded by the investment of global mining companies in operations in low wage/poorly regulated environments around the world. But our approach to these problems has always been to fix them, not to turn a blind eye. 

For instance, in the 1960s, when the dangers of exposure in the mines, smelters, and refineries where our members worked became clear to all, we didn’t advocate simply closing those facilities. Instead, we succeeded in passing OSHA and implementing the first lead standard that protected Americans on the job and provided protocols for monitoring blood lead levels and paid relief off the job, when necessary. When the Mine Safety and Health Act (MSHA), was passed in 1977, with the help of Rep. Jim Oberstar, we ensured that all metal mines were covered as well, guaranteeing annual safety inspections.

Today, in Minnesota, we need a statewide effort to define what responsible mining means in a 21st-century economy, how it should be regulated, encouraged, and, once permitted, how it should be governed. 

We need that effort because we cannot succeed in confronting the challenge of climate change to global society without a significant increase in the mining of critical minerals needed to address the transition to a decarbonized society. And we need the demand for those critical minerals to be met in such a way that mining practices — labor rights, human rights, and environmental standards — are improved globally. It is not acceptable, for instance, that the increased demand for lithium and cobalt by the worldwide push for vehicle electrification has resulted in the displacement of indigenous communities for lack of water in Chile or increased child labor in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

David Foster
David Foster
Fortunately, we have at least one good example of what it means to be a responsible mining company in the United States. In western Montana, about 50 miles southwest of Billings and 25 miles from the edge of Yellowstone National Park, in the foothills of the Beartooth Mountains, the Stillwater Mining Company has been producing platinum for almost three decades. 

Employing over 1,500 USW miners, Stillwater has been partners with two local conservation groups in a binding legal document called “a good neighbor agreement” (GNA). The GNA commits both parties to transparency, the regular exchange of information, consultation during the development of mine plans, access to independent technical expertise, and a binding arbitration process to ensure that all legal standards are met, that higher expectations can be set, and that trust can be built. In the 15 years that the GNA has been in effect, there have been no environmental lawsuits filed against Stillwater. Interested readers can find the GNA online.

Equally important is the role that recycling plays in the “circular economy” at Stillwater, which is the largest recycler of platinum in the United States. Platinum is the critical mineral in the catalytic converters required in all internal combustion engines in the U.S. to reduce the toxic exhaust fumes from our cars. Stillwater feeds the recycled platinum into the product it mines for use in the next generation of converters. Its slogan says it all, “We mine clean air.”

Again, we want to encourage our state elected officials and all stakeholders to take up the cause of making Minnesota the global leader of responsible mining. Equity in society is founded on a simple principle. If it’s important enough to ask someone else to do it, it’s important enough to do it ourselves.

Emil Ramirez is the director of District #11, United Steelworkers union (USW). Robert Bratulich and David Foster are retired directors of District #11. 

Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Brian Mann on 02/14/2020 - 11:26 am.

    I agree. Please promote completion of the Nashwauk direct iron reduction mine and oppose opening the two nonferrous mines near the boundary waters.
    News headlines are only about opposition instead of food mining promotion.

  2. Submitted by Paul John Martin on 02/14/2020 - 12:24 pm.

    Thank you for this thoughtful and informative article, gentlemen.
    Maybe a follow-up can explain where you stand on the vexed question of mining close to the Boundary Waters.
    Is it possible, in the opinion of USW, to mine in that area without pollution?
    How can one enforce good practices in an industry notorious for finding legal ways to avoid its responsibilities by convenient changes of ownership and/or bankruptcy, especially in such a pristine area upstream from the Great Lakes?

  3. Submitted by James Hamilton on 02/14/2020 - 03:06 pm.

    Background on the Montana Good Neighbor Agreement for those interested:

  4. Submitted by William Duncan on 02/14/2020 - 04:10 pm.

    I presume you are talking about Glencore and Antifogasta, mining in Minnesota? What influence are the unions going to have over those enormous global conglomerates? If there is so much expertise here, why do we need them?

    I was looking at a list of Superfund sites. There are thousands of them, many dozens in Minnesota. The list doesn’t seem to shrink, but instead grows over time. We are doing such an indifferent job cleaning up the mess of previous generations, why should I believe the State or the unions, the talk talk about Mn being a leader in environmental protections? You know, the waters of Minnesota seem to get more polluted too, year on year.

    Actions are a better reflection of reality than words.

  5. Submitted by Joe Smith on 02/18/2020 - 08:22 am.

    Surprised that “responsible mining” didn’t bring out more anti mining sentiment. It is a simple fact and also the law, that if you pass the permitting process, you can mine. That is all these mining companies are trying to do. Make sure it is closely monitored, let’s hire hundreds of workers and enjoy the 2+ jobs created off of each mining job.

    • Submitted by C.A. Arneson on 03/15/2020 - 10:46 pm.

      I’m pro-water. I would be happy to add a comment for you.

      Our waters must come first in order to have lasting, vibrant communities. It is unfortunate that information the mining industry is feeding the public often contains lies of omission. The Stillwater Mine is one example.

      The following information concerning Stillwater was also omitted in the United Steelworkers union commentary, hopefully unintentionally. “The ore body being extracted is a high-sulfide deposit that also contains levels of carbonate minerals in quantities sufficient to characterize the waste material as non-acid generating.” (Wisconsin DNR) In other words, there is very high buffering capability at Stillwater, yet it is being compared to the low buffering capability of the Duluth Complex. It is an invalid comparison.

      The Stillwater mill had a permitted design capacity of 3,000 tons per day (tpd). Compared to PolyMet’s permitted 32,000 tpd. (Not to mention the tonnage of Antofagasta, Teck Resources, and others). Not comparable.

      Stillwater, a small platinum-palladium sulfide mine located in the mountains of Montana, is being compared to multiple proposed copper-nickel sulfide (sulfide) mines located in the water intensive Duluth Complex. Compared to massive open pit and underground mines that would impact interconnected waterways in two major watersheds of northern Minnesota, leaving 99% toxic waste and hundreds of exploratory boreholes as possible conduits to Minnesota’s priceless pure groundwater. Not comparable.

      And, “The tale of the Stillwater Mine also shows how reclamation bonds are never set high enough.” See the Montana Trout Unlimited article, “Stillwater Mine: Cautionary Tale of Modern Mining.”

      Then there are outright myths, to put it politely. Indigenous communities in Chile have not been displaced for lack of water in Chile; they had enough water for their uses. Indigenous communities have been displaced because their water has been deliberately depleted and polluted by the mining industry. The industry is now using seawater in Chile, which it could have done before Chilean communities were ruined. However, desalinating seawater is extremely expensive, and disposal of the brine problematic.

      So the industry is now after Minnesota’s waters. In Antofagasta’s case, it is far cheaper to mine even the disseminated resource of the Duluth Complex, precisely because of our wealth of freshwater. Bottom line, the industry cares about profits above all else.

      In reality, sulfide mining on the scale proposed cannot be done in northern Minnesota’s extremely wet environment and disseminated ore body without irreparably damaging our waters. Antofagasta has mined in dry regions of Chile with devastating results.

      As for top-notch research facilities referenced in this article, the opinion of one of our top scientists that Minnesota’s 10mg/L wild rice sulfate standard was indeed appropriate for our waters was ignored and denied by the industry, as well as by the Minnesota legislature. The standard was left unenforced at the state’s taconite mines. Even as an experimental bioreactor to control sulfate levels in our waters resulted in elevated levels of mercury.

      Copper is one hundred percent recyclable, but the United States (the fourth largest producer of copper in the world) has sent its scrap copper to China (the third largest producer of copper) for years.

      We need to recycle, conserve, and change our level of consumption. Create and support good paying jobs that are compatible with our wealth of water. Put scientists to work finding or adapting energy alternatives that are truly “green,” instead of claiming that mining a low-grade, disseminated sulfide ore body in the wettest environment possible, damaging or destroying all surface resources in the process, is the answer for a sustainable future.

      What about the safety of our children, dependent on the safety of their waters? “Securing Our Children’s World” needs to secure our children’s health first and foremost; it is criminal to put children at risk of being born with diminished intellect (mercury), or damaged by exposure to other neurotoxins (manganese and nickel).

      “Equity in society” is based on justness, which includes equal rights to protect our environments. Do not ask Minnesotans to sacrifice our waters, or ask peoples of any other place to sacrifice theirs; instead require the mining industry to produce proven, verifiable resumes per company. Regulations do not decide how to mine, mining companies do.

      Where exactly did the wording of the so-called simple principle, “if it is important enough to ask someone else to do it, it’s important enough to do it ourselves,” come from? The industry? Is it now claiming to have asked the people in developing countries what they wanted? Claiming to have helped those who were weaker? Results would indicate otherwise.

      Mining companies mine globally, including Antofagasta, Glencore, Teck Resources, and Rio Tinto/Kennecott. Proposing to mine in Minnesota, those four companies have atrocious records of human rights and environmental abuses worldwide. If those companies cared to, or were even technically able to do so, they would mine justly everywhere regardless of existing regulations. “Responsible” mining is nothing more than an industry buzzword. Talk is cheap. Put your resume where your mouth is.

      Foreign mining companies would take our metals and leave Minnesota with the mess, with massive waste and water treatment to deal with for perpetuity. Oh, but we get to buy our metals back if we can, what a deal! Minnesotans would find that gullibility has an astronomical price tag.

      In 2020 Minnesota needs a referendum on sulfide mining. Ask the people what they want.

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