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For responsible mining in Minnesota, improve government first

Minnesota does not need to create another agency or foundation. What it does need is a political system independent of the financial inducements of special interest groups, including international mining operations, and a truly professional bureaucracy.

PolyMet Mining facility
The entrance of the leaders of two well-respected organizations into the Minnesota mining debate is most welcome. Mark Ritchie of Global Minnesota and David Foster of the Washington based Energy Futures Initiative have advanced in MinnPost (“Minnesota can become a world leader in responsible mining”) the idea of creating an independent entity that would facilitate compromises between mining companies and their opposition. The basic argument is that the world needs certain valuable commodities in order to continue technological progress. Of necessity, this will involve some form of mining. On the other hand, mining poses the risk of permanent harm to our drinking water, land, and wildlife.

Tom Berkelman
Tom Berkelman
The answer Foster and Richie advocate is safe mining that would come about as a result of creating a Minnesota Global Center for Responsible Mining. “This Center could function as a publicly supported nonprofit – perhaps affiliated with one or more colleges or universities — to provide a holistic approach to meet the technological, social, and economic challenges to mine responsibly,” they wrote.

Former Gov. Arne Carlson
MinnPost file photo by James Nord
Former Gov. Arne Carlson
However, the world already has such entities, including the Responsible Mining Foundation located in Switzerland and the IRMA (Initiative for a Responsible Mining Assurance) in the state of Washington. Both have solid reputations and are keenly aware of the global need for certain commodities. But since they lack governmental powers of enforcement, they can only advise.

It is incumbent upon Foster and Richie to answer why there is a need for another organization to do what others are currently doing. But it would also be helpful if they would publicly deal with the concerns that have already been raised relative to the proposed PolyMet and Twin Metals mining projects, which place Lake Superior and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness at serious risk. Every one of these issues falls within the scope of what the Responsible Mining Foundation and IRMA advocate. This includes:

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  1. photo of article author
    Janet Entzel
    The unwillingness of the Minnesota Legislature (on a bipartisan basis) to hold a single public hearing on this issue even after the dam collapse in Brazil, where more than 200 people were killed and the environment permanently damaged. The same consultant involved in the design of that dam is employed by PolyMet to design the dam in Minnesota.
  2. The refusal by both the Dayton and Walz administrations to permit health testing of the waters that will be affected by the effluent from the mines. This includes the certainty of mercury and arsenic leeching into the drinking waters used by Native American tribes and the people of Duluth.
  3. The continued unwillingness of Gov. Tim Walz and the Legislature to make Glencore a party to the indemnification agreement. Currently, the state’s contract is with PolyMet, a shell corporation with no discernible assets and owned by Glencore. In the collapse of the dam in Brazil, Vale Corporation was held liable and it set aside $6 billion to cover the anticipated costs. There is no such protection whatsoever for Minnesota taxpayers in the current contract with PolyMet.
  4. The unwillingness of Walz and legislative leaders, both Democrat and Republican, to discuss why the state is doing business with such an internationally corrupt company as Glencore. They have violated virtually every standard advanced by IRMA and the Responsible Mining Foundation as well as those mentioned by Foster and Richie. Glencore is currently under investigation by the United Kingdom and our own Department of Justice.

In addition, both the mining companies and our elected officials have ignored the impact of artificial learning and machine learning on the reduction of jobs in industry. This is a most impactful technological advance and may well explain the failure of the Minnesota-PolyMet contract to guarantee employment levels. The simple fact is that mining is becoming increasingly automated thereby requiring less labor.

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Other concerns, including the corruption of the permitting process by Minnesota Pollution Control, are currently under review by the courts.

Chris Knopf
Chris Knopf
The bottom line is that Minnesota does not need to create another agency or foundation to broker mining issues. Rather, what it does need is a political system independent of the financial inducements of special interest groups, including international mining operations, and a truly professional bureaucracy that at all times only represents the long-term best interests of the public. This reform represents the best solution in that it will enable our state government to do its job as originally intended with public hearings, competent professional review of permits, and a process free of conflicts of interest.

The addition of David Foster and Mark Richie and their respective organizations in this battle for a more open and honest government would be most welcome.     

Tom Berkelman is a retired DFL legislator from Duluth. Arne H. Carlson is a former GOP governor, now retired. Janet Entzel is a retired DFL legislator from Minneapolis. Chris Knopf is president of the Friends of the Boundary Waters. Science writer Anne Brataas also contributed to this commentary.

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