Near the end of last year, it was reported that the state of Minnesota has spent at least $6.4 million to defend PolyMet’s proposed copper-sulfide mine. Somehow, the state has gotten caught up in spending millions of dollars that, in the end, advance the interests of a foreign-owned mining company.
This is not just any mining company. The conglomerate that owns PolyMet is Glencore, a Swiss-based giant that reported profits of $203 billion dollars in 2021, and is ranked by Fortune magazine as one of the 25 largest companies in the world. At the very least, this should make us scratch our heads: Why are we spending so much to defend the interests of a company with such deep pockets?
What is more concerning is that Glencore isn’t just rich, but corrupt. In May of last year, Glencore pled guilty to charges related to corruption, bribery, and market manipulation. As part of the settlement, Glencore agreed to pay $1.5 billion dollars – that’s billion with a “B” – in fines.
For those who know Glencore’s history, this doesn’t come as a surprise. Glencore’s founder, Marc Rich, defied international sanctions to trade with apartheid South Africa and landed a spot on the FBI’s list of 10 most wanted fugitives. A simple Google search will reveal the company has a rap sheet of corruption, pollution, human rights abuses and violating international laws.
Glencore’s PolyMet copper-sulfide mine project has long been riddled with problems and red flags. The very nature of this type of mining is alarming. Every copper-sulfide mine that has operated has polluted the surrounding water. So much that the EPA has named this kind of mining the most polluting industry in the United States. If built, PolyMet would pollute Lake Superior and the water of downstream communities such as Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and Duluth.
Why would we want a company with such a checkered history as Glencore operating such a risky mine?
Further, why are our state agencies spending so much taxpayer money to defend decisions that ultimately align with Glencore’s interests?
It might make for a more scandalous story if there were bribes involved or if somehow DNR and MPCA were illegally colluding with PolyMet and Glencore. But this is not a story about corruption. DNR is doing what it is supposed to do.
Through a state statute, DNR is compelled to promote “the state’s mineral economy through long-term support of mineral exploration, evaluation, environmental research, development, production, and commercialization” (Minnesota Statutes section 93.001). As the agency administrating and managing Minnesota’s natural resources, DNR is also obligated to promote mining.
With PolyMet, DNR has taken some truly outrageous stances. Perhaps most prominently in its decision to permit a cheap, outdated tailings dam to contain PolyMet’s reactive waste rock. In Brazil, the same type of tailings dam collapsed in 2019 and killed over 250 people. The design may be cheap and cost effective but is so dangerous that it has been banned throughout Central and South America. Yet DNR argues it is safe enough for Minnesota.
Such a stance would seem to contradict DNR’s mission statement, where the agency tasks itself to “provide for commercial uses of natural resources in a way that creates a sustainable quality of life.” The broad policy here is to manage “the state’s water resources, sustaining healthy waterways and ground water resources.”
Indeed, the Minnesota Legislature has charged MPCA and DNR to act as co-trustees, or stewards, of our natural resources. And DNR does much to promote the responsible use of the environment and promote conservation values.
At the same time, the Legislature has charged DNR to promote mining interests.
This is a contradiction here. A structural problem we can address.
It’s time for the Legislature to resolve this conflict of interest and transfer DNR’s obligation to promote mining to the Department of Employment and Economic Development.
DNR should be in the business of managing our natural resources. It should not be acting as an industry partner to a multi-billion-dollar Swiss mining conglomerate.
Chris Knopf is the executive director of Friends of the Boundary Waters.