Mining controversy in Wisconsin puts spotlight on Minnesota taconite

A tally of $700,000 in fines over seven years suggests that ironing mining runs afoul of the rules much more often than most of us are aware.
MinnPost photo by Catherine Conlan
A tally of $700,000 in fines over seven years suggests that ironing mining runs afoul of the rules much more often than most of us are aware.

No doubt it’s an eye-opener for many Minnesotans to learn, from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, that Iron Range taconite operations have run up pollution fines totaling more than $700,000 in the last seven years.

For a variety of reasons, beginning with its near-sacred position in northern Minnesota’s culture and economy, iron mining has gotten a relative pass from the state’s environmentalists.

Taconite has gotten some breaks on the regulatory side, too, compared with other heavy industries, because of its grandfather status and the unavailability of effective emission controls at some parts of the process until fairly recently.

In Wisconsin, though, taconite mining has become a hot-button topic again with Gogebic Taconite’s pitch for a new mine near Mellen — provided legislators relax the state’s process for issuing permits to new mining operations. The company prefers something along the lines of what Minnesota does, or Michigan.

Regular violators
The Wisconsin chapter of the Sierra Club, among others, thinks this isn’t such a hot idea. It gathered the records to show that taconite operations in Minnesota remain regular violators of standards for air quality, water quality and hazardous-waste handling.

“I think the lesson is that taconite mines are very big and dirty operations, and it is difficult to promise you are going to keep a clean operation — that’s what these mines show,” Dave Blouin, mining committee chairman for the Sierra Club, told the Journal Sentinel’s Lee Bergquist.

That’s not something you hear very often on this side of the state line. Not even in recent years, when the state’s leading environmental voices have finally — some might say belatedly — been raised against the risks of  proposed new mines for copper, nickel and other precious metals in the north woods.

Treading carefully, to avoid being painted as zealots who oppose all mining anywhere, they are at pains to speak softly about taconite.

Chemically speaking, it is not difficult to distinguish the environmental impacts of mining iron-bearing oxide ores, like taconite, from those of mining sulfide ores for copper, nickel, platinum and other precious metals.

Different impacts from different mining types
Sulfide mines create perpetual acid drainage when the vast quantities of rock that have been dug and crushed for metals extraction encounter rainwater or groundwater, yielding sulfuric acid. Any hardrock mining operation burns a lot of fuel and creates a lot of smoke, noise and dust, but these impacts stop when the mine shuts down. Acid drainage does not.

Politically speaking, however, it has been a challenge to keep this distinction in focus, and to argue against new sulfide mines in a state whose venerable iron mines are not only OK but iconic.

Mining companies and their political allies have done their best to portray all mining as the same and to paint foes of sulfide mining as zealots who are anti-mining across the board — and also anti-jobs for northern Minnesota.

They typically claim that modern mining methods are environmentally acceptable and subject to extensive regulations that successfully safeguard Minnesota’s air and water quality.

A tally of $700,000 in fines over seven years suggests that ironing mining runs afoul of the rules much more often than most of us are aware.

Goal is to prevent pollution, not merely to punish
Some might argue that the fines are a measure of regulatory vigor, proof that the taconite operations aren’t getting away with pollution. But the goal of environmental protection is to prevent pollution, not merely to punish it, and even steep fines can be just another cost of doing business.

Despite all the current claptrap it is actually quite rare for large industrial operations to be shut down for noncompliance with pollution rules.

This is why the permitting process is so crucial to ensuring safe and responsible mining of any kind, from iron to copper to frac sand.  If compliance with environmental standards isn’t assured at the outset, it likely can’t be achieved at all.

It’s also why so many Minnesotans have looked to Wisconsin’s approach to mining permits as an improvement over our own — requiring a new mine to prove by living example that its design can ensure safe operation through its complete life cycle and beyond.

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Disclosure:  During parts of 2007 and 2008, I was executive director of Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, and worked to raise the level of activism by Friends and other groups in response to the threats of sulfide mining, which I had witnessed firsthand in the western U.S. That experience informed the views I’ve held before, during and after my stint at Friends:

  • It may be possible to open, operate and close down a sulfide mining operation without creating permanent acid drainage, but no mine comparable to those proposed for northern Minnesota has yet proved its ability to do so.
  • Mining companies have compiled a long record of promising safe practices, breaking those promises and shifting the costs of dealing with the damage onto taxpayers.
  • No sulfide mining should be permitted in Minnesota without genuine, escape-proof assurances that the mine operators will be responsible for any and all environmental harm they cause.

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Also in the news last week, a cool feature in Twin Cities Daily Planet about do-it-yourself solar systems and other energy-minded projects undertaken by homeowners and small businesses in the Twin Cities.

Highlighted are homes that show the viability of sun-powered thermal and electric systems on small, urban lots, disproving the assumption that large roofs and open spaces are needed to make solar work.

Also: an off-the-grid garage that is said to be the first straw-bale structure approved for construction in Minneapolis in the last 14 years.

These projects were among some 45 on a day-long tour sponsored by the Minnesota Renewable Energy Society. The self-guided tour is an annual event, and I’m definitely marking my calendar for next year’s — especially if those urban chickens make a return appearance.

Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Joe Musich on 10/17/2011 - 05:00 pm.

    Well done article. It needs to be said however the expense to human health has not yet been totally entered into the mix for the expense of the mining in ne. MN. Let alone all the other as economists refer to them as social costs. As a college age student I was blessed with a job at mintac. The money was good. I could pay for a good portion of my education with summer work. But with today’s superflation of college expenses and the relative turtle pace of wage growth I doubt the same could be said. I recently toured the mintac plant and the same old propaganda was being fed the masses about the safety and health issues.

  2. Submitted by Clayton Haapala on 10/17/2011 - 10:06 pm.

    Actually, $700k of fines over seven years spread over, what, a half-dozen taconite mining operations does NOT sound like enough of a big deal on which to base the premise of this article. Is there an egregious actor? A particular practice that found to be in violation at several sites? You need some details.

    Your point on safe sulphide mining not yet having been demonstrated is consistent with what I have read.

  3. Submitted by Bob Tammen on 10/18/2011 - 08:48 am.

    The taconite tailings ponds on the Mesabi Iron Range are all leaking. Our neghbors in Wisconsin are wise to be skeptical about an industry that has failed to create healthy communities in Northern Minnesota.

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