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A look at some of the biggest subjects shaping environmental news in 2017

Without question, I think, the most important environmental news in Minnesota next year will center on precious-metals mining, in particular the progress of PolyMet Mining Corp.’s NorthMet project.

NorthMet entered the home stretch, in terms of state approval, last month when it applied for its first actual permit to mine. This lifts the state’s first copper/nickel mine out of the concept stage — though the concepts became quite detailed in the course of environmental-impact review — and into the phase where actual, final plans are reviewed for compliance with state requirements.

PolyMet needs more than 20 permits for various phases of the project — open-pit mining, ore processing, waste retention and more — but has been saying it expects to have them all in hand by year’s end. An 18-month construction program would follow, and then mining could start. Or not.

The project has a wide array of challengers, most but not all concerned with risks to water quality and other components of ecological and human health; many others object to the likelihood of long-term mitigation needs and the unlikelihood that any company can be held to account for harm that persists for centuries. PolyMet can count on further administrative and court challenges.

But it can’t necessarily count on favorable financing terms from Glencore, which owns a big chunk of the company and provided a critical loan early last year. Nor can it count on copper prices rebounding to a level that makes production from a new Minnesota mine competitive with metal from big mines already operating elsewhere.

As for all those promised jobs and tax revenue, Minnesotans ought not to count on seeing much until those prices improve. But I think we can surely count on PolyMet to push the project all the way through the permitting phase, if only to ensure its viability for operation — or sale — somewhere down the road.

Meanwhile, the much larger mine that Twin Metals Minnesota has hoped to build near Birch Lake appears not merely dead but really most sincerely dead following this month’s announcement by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management that TMM’s mineral leases will not be renewed. It’s always possible that decision could be overturned in court, however.

On the other hand, the odds may be rising that Kennecott Exploration Co. will be moving ahead next year with plans to mine copper deposits on land where it holds leases in Aitkin County; it has been picking up the pace on exploratory drilling.

* * *

Looking beyond the state’s borders, the question of replacing wolves on Isle Royale has now moved from the what-to-do phase to the how-to-do-it stage, with the National Park Service’s recent announcement that it proposes to capture and import 20 to 30 new wolves to the island over a three-year period that will start as soon as possible.

ASAP in this case probably means autumn  2018, after revision of the new proposal in response to public comments that will be taken through mid-March of next year; the plan is to time the imports to late fall or early winter to maximize the odds of success.

That process could be contentious, too, pitting advocates of a hands-off approach to federally designated wilderness areas (like the majority of Isle Royale National Park) against those who support the park’s conclusion that intervention is necessary to stabilize the island’s ecological balance among wolves, moose and vegetation. Also, perhaps, its appeal to visitors.

* * *

At the national level, the biggest story surely will be how much harm can be accomplished by a president who would seem to lead the league in opposition to environmental protection and progress on climate change.

I happen to think that’s anybody’s guess, because even Donald Trump doesn’t seem to know what he really wants to do. Once he decides, we will all gain important lessons on the various constraints and competing forces that confine a presidency (especially, in all probability, an inept and unpopular presidency).

I do see reason for optimism on clean energy, however, if only because the investments and other market forces that have been driving down coal consumption and ramping up renewable energy are somewhat independent of presidential whim and therefore likely to continue.

Even if the Trump administration proves to be as pro-fossil and anti-renewable as the most dire forecasts hold, what utility or investor will want to revise long-term strategies on what may be highly short-term change in Washington?

The other national trend that bears watching, I think, is how the landscape may be changing for pipeline projects, and particularly for oil. The successful efforts to cancel the Sandpiper project and at least stall the Dakota Access Pipeline are examples of a widening opposition that continues to grow — and, especially in the latter case, of an engagement by Indian tribes on environmental questions that holds great promise.

* * *

Globally, no story in 2017 is likely to rival the pace and various impacts of changing climate on a warming planet.

Within the past month, we’ve had revelations about the unexpectedly rapid rate of melting in both the Arctic and the Antarctic,  a stunning discovery about accelerating rates of methane emission, and the list can go on and on but I’ve gone on long enough for a piece that’s supposed to be short.

OK, just one more subject area: food. As in food safety, food security, sustainable food production, food engineering …

When I look back over 2016, noting the stories I most meant to get to but didn’t, I notice how many relate to this most intimate of our connections with the earth and its fate.  So I’ll be focusing on more subjects at the nexus of food and environment next year.

And as always I welcome suggestions from the audience.

Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by Steve Schild on 12/29/2016 - 09:43 am.

    Another story to watch

    A strong grass-roots citizen movement prompted Winona County to pass a county-wide ban on frac-sand operations, the first in the state to do so. Pro-fracking interests have threatened a legal challenge to the ban, so it’ll be interesting to see how that plays out.

    • Submitted by Greg Gaut on 01/02/2017 - 04:59 pm.

      Hats off to Winona’s movement, and speaking of Winona…

      Reggie McLeod, editor of the excellent Big River Magazine, published there, raised a very important issue in the magazine’s new issue. Republicans may now have the power to pass their cherished legislation turning over federal lands to the states, like the 240,000-acre Upper Mississippi River Wildlife and Fish Refuge for example, which stretches from Lake Pepin to the Quad Cities. Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois and Minnesota might in turn be tempted to sell chunks to private owners. This would be one of the many privatization disasters which we need to be ready to fight.

  2. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 12/29/2016 - 10:19 am.

    Water !!

    The continued drawdown of our major aquifer resources, virtually unopposed by any meaningful regulation or preservation effort, may seem like old news to us, but our children and grandchildren will be scratching their heads and asking, “What were they thinking ??”

    Worse, they could be spitting on our graves.

  3. Submitted by joe smith on 12/29/2016 - 12:21 pm.

    It will be a new twist to mining in 2017 if when

    you pass the permitting process, you get the permits! There are rules and regulations that have to be met before you start mining, once met, let the mining begin. This is the point where every Tom, Dick and Harry start saying mining cannot be done safely and we are going to ruin the world. I guess they would rather see copper, nickel, iron ore, taconite and precious metals being mined else where with no regulations or rules. I am looking forward to 2017 and hoping the mining industry has an uptick in new jobs, better salaries and all the wealth it brings to the Range!

    • Submitted by Bill Willy on 12/30/2016 - 11:09 am.

      Sure . . . Safe as milk

      “This is the point where every Tom, Dick and Harry start saying mining cannot be done safely and we are going to ruin the world.”

      You’re right. This is that point because it’s ALWAYS that point. But the thing (always) is, anytime Tom, Dick or Harry say those things, somebody from the Sugar Plum Jobs Dream wing of the conversation says mining can be done safely because MN has tough rules, regs, laws, etc..

      But the other thing is, anytime Tom, Dick or Harry asks the people who say that to provide an example of ANY copper mine anywhere in the world that has NOT done big time damage to the environment around it, there is no response.

      And, I bet, that will be your response this time too. We’ll see.

      But to be fair, I thought I should take a look to see if there was a specific, “non-theoretical,” example or two of the kind of thing Tom, Dick and Harry is always talking about. The same kind of specific examples it would be great if you could come up with to show it really can be done safely.

      You’re familiar with Glencore/Xtrata, no doubt. The Swiss company Polymet’s working for? The real mining company that would be mining those other US Forest Service wetlands cleanly and safely while making everyone on the Range rich IF Polymet can just get that permit to mine?

      Here’s a little info on the kind of safe, environmentally friendly job Glencore’s been doing at some of their other mines . . .

      “Glencore Xstrata: Environmental Pollution, Tintaya Copper Mine, Peru

      “The Peruvian community of Espinar is engaged in an ongoing dispute against Xstrata´s Tintaya copper mine. Inhabitants allege that the mine has contaminated local water and soil with heavy metals. People believe that this contamination is linked to a recent increase in farm animal deformities. Multiple studies by private and state entities found elevated levels of contaminants including aluminum, arsenic, copper, iron, lithium, and manganese in water and soil samples. A study conducted by Peruvian state authorities that included 12,500 samples concluded that 2.2% of the samples were severely contaminated and 52.71% contained at least one parameter that exceeded official thresholds. In response to these findings, Xstrata cited the ‘natural background mineralization present in the region.’

      “Espinar´s mayor, Oscar Mollohuanca believes that the Tintaya mine is responsible for this contamination. Anti-mine protests in May/June 2012 resulted in two deaths and multiple injuries. Mayor Mollohuanca was among those arrested for disturbing the public order. Peru´s prime minister, Oscar Valdes, labeled the protesters as extremists and declared a state of emergency in the region, stripping inhabitants of many of their basic rights for 30 days.”

      “Glencore: Severe Health and Environmental Damages at Mopani Copper Mines plc

      “Mopani Copper Mines uses harmful acids to extract copper at its Mufulira and Nkana Mines. Only one of three safety pumps was ever installed in the extraction system. Consequently, a damage of this single pump led to severe contamination of drinking water in 2007.

      “The emission of sulphur at the Mopani mines is 70 times higher then the maximum healthy limit set by the World Health Organisation. Locals suffer toxic rains and respiration problems.

      ” . . . acid mists harming local communities and damaging the environment

      ” . . . sulfur dioxide emissions exceeded the World Health Organization’s limits by up to 30 times

      ” . . . Police forces deployed tear gas to disperse the protesters

      ” . . . Tax evasion: The government looses £ 76 million a year because of Glencore’s tax avoidance

      ” . . . The President of the European Investment Bank has given order to the offices of the bank not to accept any new loan applications to commodities trading giant Glencore and its subsidiaries, citing ‘serious concerns’ over the group’s corporate governance.”

      “Glencore under fire for zinc and lead mining pollution

      “Heavy metal pollution in the MacArthur River . . .

      “Yesterday the Independent Mine Monitor’s report was released which confirmed long-held fears about heavy metal contamination in edible fish species, caused by the Glencore-operated McArthur River zinc mine, located in the Northern Territory gulf region.

      “The report described the risk of acid, saline and metalliferous drainage as the most significant environmental issue at the MacArthur River mine due to the identification of acid forming and problematic waste rock content on site, which was a source of toxic run-off into the MacArthur River.”

      “Mining company’s failed environmental repair job creates concrete creek

      “It was meant to be a remediation program to repair extensive mine subsidence damage to Sugarloaf State Conservation Area in the Lower Hunter.

      “Instead it turned one environmental disaster into another.

      “Contractors working for coal giant Glencore Xstrata pumped more than 180 tonnes of concrete into a tributary of Cockle Creek at Lake Macquarie . . .

      “Discovery of the creek comes just a day after Glencore Xstrata’s spokesman assured Hunter residents that the mine was working to ‘provide appropriate remediation of [other substantial evironmental] mining impacts and operate in a responsible manner’.

      Those are just a few snips from a handful of the (67,000) different things that show up when a person does a search on “glencore/xstrata environmental damage.”

      But you’re confident that Glencore would do a fine job here. Or, if they don’t — if they slip up a little — the MPCA will come down on them like a ton of bricks, the same way they have on companies like Minntac and anyone else polluting the St. Louis and Lake Superior.

      And because of all the high paying jobs and Range wealth they’d generate, I assume you think the more companies like Glencore we could get to come (from Switzerland or whatever foreign country) to do business in Minnesota, the better.

      If you think that would be a good idea, that would be interesting, given your experience with owning businesses and all. It seems funny that you’d recommend people on the Range do business with companies with reputations like Glencore.

      But that’s another story. What will be even more interesting for now is whatever evidence you provide that Glencore/Xstrata (or any other mining company) actually HAS mined copper “in a safe and environmentally safe way” SOMEwhere on the planet.

      • Submitted by Eric Snyder on 01/03/2017 - 06:16 pm.

        Great post

        You can’t trust the mining companies, period. There’s simply too much mining history of mismanagement, lies, coverups, environmental destruction, companies leaving communities with the cleanup bill, corruption of government, burying of evidence, human rights abuses, mining company security company murders, land theft, and so forth. It’s practically the built into the business model in the industry. You touch on many of these themes in your very helpful post.

        It’s impossible to come away from any significant reading on how mining companies actually operate in the world, especially outside the so-called developed countries, and not conclude that many or most of them operate semi-criminally. This is certainly the impression any reasonable observer of Glencore will get. (Why aren’t Glencore executives serving long prison sentences? Just asking.) What a damning indictment of the political class in the state of MN that it would allow a company like Glencore to do business here at all.

        And yet in the public debate on this in MN you almost never hear of these commonplace mining industry abuses. Instead, a kind of hayseed naïveté about this industry prevails among significant members of the public. Automatized cries of “Jobs!” seek to drown out every other consideration. “Wealth!” is another rallying cry, oblivious to the fact that the mining company will make off with most of it, and for no rationally defensible reason.

        For companies like Glencore and others to even exist requires a radically dumbed down public and politicians willing to shine the shoes of corporate power. We should know better.

  4. Submitted by joe smith on 12/30/2016 - 06:30 pm.

    Very long winded approach to a simple regulation

    issue. All of the agencies (way too many of them) have decided there is a process to get permits to mine safely. The agencies are filled with experts in a variety of environmental issues, they set regulations that have to be met. When a mining company goes through the multi-year process of getting permitted from environmental experts, permits should be granted. Now every Tom, Dick and Harry (along with a Bill or 2) gets involved to say the environmental experts, that they agree with on so many regulations to prohibit mining, logging, oil/gas drilling on their favorite pieces of land, are dimwits and can’t be trusted.

    I guess when the regulators agree with your position they are good, when they oppose they are bad… I personally believe they regulate too much on every thing… That is just me, I don’t flip flop like some Tom, Dick or Harry plus a Bill or 2.

    • Submitted by Bill Willy on 01/03/2017 - 09:01 am.

      As usual

      Same old “Jobs trump Boundary Waters, St Louis and Rainy Lake rivers and Lake Superior” song but no examples of “safe” copper mines operating anywhere in the world.

      You must know where there’s at least one.

      Or if you don’t and there aren’t any, how could there be any experts anywhere who know what regulations it takes to mine copper “safely”?

      It’s obvious Glencore doesn’t know how to do it (see above) and there’s no evidence Polymet has ever built or operated ANY kind of mine so, no matter what they say in their EIS and permit applications, it’s more than obvious they don’t know how to do it.

      Put those two things things together and it adds up to a case of the old “Tell ’em whatever they say they need to hear to get the permits” shell game and, after that’s done, it’s regs schmegs from then on:

      — If there’s never been a copper mine that hasn’t polluted the water, land and air around it, there’s nobody at the DNR, the MPCA, the IRRRB or “Range delegation” — nobody ANYwhere — who knows how to do build and run a “safe” copper mine or what the regulations for doing that need to be;

      — If Polymet hasn’t ever built or run a mine they don’t know any more about how to do that “safely” than you or me, no matter what they say in their 3,000-page pile of guesswork-at-best EIS and permit applications mumbo jumbo;

      — Rules, regulations, laws don’t mean anything to Glencore because, once they secure their “premit to mine” (from their untouchable perch in Switzerland) they don’t pay any attention to them; and

      — When it comes to mining in Minnesota, the MPCA barely, if ever, enforces the regulations that already exist.

      So while you roll out the “simple regulations issue” line like a faithful Polymet public relations assistant, that argument holds about as much water as a Smokey the Bear sign in a forest fire.

      But let’s forget all that for now and get back to the most important thing here one more time . . .

      Show me an example of a copper mine anywhere in the world that’s generated 25 million tons of waste rock per year that hasn’t polluted the environment around it.

      Can you do that or not?

      • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 01/04/2017 - 02:33 pm.

        He can’t, nor can anyone else.

        The people who really should be asking and demanding an answer to your common sense question are the very people in position to grant or deny the permits.

        Yet our environmental experts employed by the various agencies involved can’t seem to see the forest for the trees. It’s astonishing to me that this nonsense had gotten as far as it has.

        Your question should have been the FIRST question asked, and no further steps should have been allowed until it was answered satisfactorily.

        • Submitted by Bill Willy on 01/04/2017 - 06:12 pm.

          Yeah . . .

          It seems that way to me too . . . It’s like all kinds of people saying, “We can make this baby fly!” even though every plane that’s ever been built has exploded just past the end of the runway (because nobody’s figured out how to build wings yet).

          But never mind that . . . Somebody’s put together a gigantic set of rules, regulations and diagrams of “new safety standards” all plane manufacturers will need to meet before their planes are allowed out onto that runway. And then they all start mesmerizing everyone they can with the idea that those New and Improved Standards will lead to all kinds of free money for everybody and keep all passengers safe as can be, “So book your tickets now!”

          The other “ultra simple” thing I always think about this whole dumb issue is the “Absolute Arrogance” wrapped up in every last advocates’ overlooking of a few things so fundamental that it must be one of those cases of something being too obvious to notice.

          Primarily, Gravity and its immutable effect on water.

          That and this:

          Polymet Hoyt Lakes processing and tailings reservoir elevation: 1,473 feet

          Duluth/Lake Superior elevation: 607 feet

          Boundary Waters Entry Point 32 – South Kawishiwi River elevation: 1,201 feet

          I put a comment on that under another article a while back (“One word and two unbreakable laws” – so no need to re-plate that cabbage here.

          Main point is, even more impossible than the idea that any regulations anyone put together would prevent pollution (or be adhered to or enforced) is the idea that ANY regulation or any thing could prevent Polymet’s toxic water from making its way downhill.

          Nothing could stop that. It WOULD happen. There’s no way it COULDN’T happen. Anyone who thinks it wouldn’t has forgotten what they learned in sixth or seventh grade.

          All it would take is Time, and there’s as much of that around as there is Gravity and neither of them is going anywhere or in a hurry. They’ve been doing what they do since way before the watermelon, they’re everywhere (not just in Minnesota), they’ll outlast anything anyone puts in their way and whether it was two days after they started up their grinders and vats or 500 or 10,000 years down the road, every last drop of poison Polymet would manufacturer would be moving on down to anyplace lower than it.

          If the stuff they’d generate wasn’t so nasty, or if it didn’t have the same kind of “half-life” as the “spent” nuclear fuel rods being “stored” right next to the Mississippi at Monticello and Prairie Island (another stroke of scientific genius), it wouldn’t be a bad idea. But we all know about that one: Constant water treatment required for “500 years” which is Polyspeak for “indefinitely.”

          Anyway, you’re 110% right. It’s off the charts absurd and should have been forgotten about the minute it was suggested.

          The good news is it’s never too late to forget (until it is).

  5. Submitted by joe smith on 01/03/2017 - 12:10 pm.

    Two quick points

    First, environmental experts set requirements to be met for permitting, the requirements are much stricter in 2017 than ever before. Second, name me a copper/nickel mine that is operating under 2017 regulations and requirements that Polymet will be using.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 01/03/2017 - 05:15 pm.

      “Environmental Experts?”

      Really? “Environmental experts” are the ones setting the requirements? The mining industry has no sway over the permitting process, or the adoption of regulations?

    • Submitted by Tim McCarthy on 01/04/2017 - 11:09 am.

      It’s never worked before

      But it will this time!

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