Should PolyMet’s proposed mine be compared to the Flambeau Mine?

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is giving the public more time to digest and comment on the massive Environmental Impact Statement on PolyMet’s proposed NorthMet copper-nickel mine in northeastern Minnesota. The new deadline is Dec. 21. Environmental activists have spent hours hunched over their computers, critiquing the document’s analysis and looking for potential problems with the project.

One campaigner who has already logged a lot of time analyzing similar documents is Laura Gauger. She was living in northwestern Wisconsin when a small copper mine was built near Ladysmith. The Flambeau mine, operated by a subsidiary of Kennecott, itself a subsidiary of Rio Tinto, operated just 140 feet from the Flambeau River from 1993 to 1997. Gauger and others fought the mine and monitored its activities. Years later, she couldn’t help noticing when advocates of the PolyMet mine in Minnesota pointed to the now-closed Flambeau mine as an example of a successful operation that did not hurt the environment.

“I saw how people were misled in Wisconsin,” Gauger said, “and I’m concerned that it’s happening here, too.”

Gauger has written a 16-page booklet, complete with a DVD packed with original documents, comparing the two mines.

The much smaller Flambeau mine contained ore so highly concentrated that it was economically feasible to ship it to Canada for processing, so it produced none of the tailings (fine waste rock from milling and concentrating) that can be a challenge to store safely.

According to Gauger’s analysis:

Flambeau mine
  • Pit size: 32 acres
  • Wetland impact: 19 acres
  • Water treatment: five years
  • No tailings
  • Nine million tons of waste rock
PolyMet mine
  • Pit size: 528 acres
  • Wetland impact: 7,000 acres
  • Water treatment: indefinite
  • 225 million tons of tailings
  • Up to 308 million tons of waste rock

Of course there are similarities between the two mines. When mining was finished, workers at the Flambeau mine buried overburden (rock and soil dug up to expose the underlying mineral deposit) in the exhausted mine pit and allowed it to fill with water. This is the same “subaqueous” disposal method planned for PolyMet’s waste rock. Computer models prior to operation of the Flambeau mine predicted high levels of certain minerals in groundwater within the pit. But those predictions didn’t come close to actual levels monitored after closure. Sulfate turned out to be nearly twice as high; manganese, 76 times as high; iron, nearly 47 times as high; and copper, 62 times as high.

According to Ann Coakley, director of the Wisconsin DNR’s Waste and Materials Management Program, it’s taking longer for the pit to stabilize because the company used finer-grade limestone to buffer the mineral-laden rock than planned. But she says monitoring wells outside the pit, close to the river, show groundwater meets state standards.

“It’s not impacting the Flambeau River, and that’s the measure of success,” she said. “That waste pit could have high manganese for decades, if not centuries, and as long as it’s not moving outside of the waste pit and to the river, it’s not a problem.”

In an email, Flambeau Mining Company’s Dave Cline wrote, “All monitoring of the mine site continues to show that the Flambeau River was, is and remains protected … we are proud of our demonstrated commitment to and longstanding positive environmental record at the Flambeau Mine site.”

Just 140 feet of bedrock separates the river from the backfilled pit. Gauger and others worry that the rock could eventually allow migration of contaminated groundwater into the river. Coakley dismissed that concern.

“The bedrock is not very permeable at all; it’s quite tight; there are very few fractures,” she said. “So water moves very, very slowly, and will never get to the Flambeau River.” Nevertheless, the state plans to continue monitoring the pit and the river for decades.

One oddity about the Flambeau mine is that a small area was not reclaimed because the city of Ladysmith asked the company to leave its buildings and a road there for re-use. The company built a bio-filter and later an infiltration basin in an attempt to clean contaminated stormwater flowing from the area. Neither of these passive water treatment systems has proved effective. Now, a nearby small stream is loaded with enough copper and zinc to land it on the state’s list of impaired waters.

Laura Gauger joined two environmental groups to sue the company for the pollution. In a federal court case that rivals a Dickens story for twists and turns, the trial court ruled that the company had violated the Clean Water Act, but the appeals court ruled that it wasn’t the company’s fault, because the Wisconsin DNR had failed to place limitations on contamination for the stream. Rio Tinto went after the plaintiffs for legal costs, in what Gauger describes as a campaign to discourage such citizen lawsuits.

The DNR’s Ann Coakley said the state has no plans at the moment to clean up the stream. “It’s not a very high priority compared to some others on the list,” she said. “It only flows during rainfall and snowmelt events, and the biggest problem is we don’t know for sure why the copper concentration is high.” Coakley said the ground around the entire area is naturally high in copper, and the stream wasn’t sampled before the mine was built.

Gauger draws on her study of the Flambeau mine to criticize Minnesota’s environmental study of the proposed PolyMet mine. In her comments to the Minnesota DNR, she says the study fails to provide baseline water quality data on surrounding streams, fails to explain limitations in computer modeling, and promises use of passive water treatment systems that didn’t work at Flambeau.

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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by joe smith on 12/19/2015 - 09:50 am.

    I am sure the DNR (plus many more agencies) have looked into all the plans of Polymet the past 15 yrs and will decide if they can get the permits to begin copper mining. The deadline for public comments has been pushed to Dec 21st so more folks can read the reports. All procedures are being followed, so IF Polymet gets permitted, I don’t see why they should be bogged down any longer with litigation or another study. Polymet is not shorting any part of the permitting process and is on the cusp of starting to mine.

    No matter what Polymet does the anti-mining folks will not want to see mining done up here. I am always amazed when teachers, accountants, lawyers start talking parts per million, watersheds, water flow and Eco systems while bashing scientists and engineers from DNR who’s job it is to research these things. When folks who don’t buy the parts per million of CO2 emissions with climate change we are called science deniers??? I guess it all depends on which side of the “green” movement you fall on.

    • Submitted by Russ Hilbert on 12/21/2015 - 01:17 pm.


      It all depends on if it fits their agenda. You see this in many other things like climate change, feedlots, GMO’s, ethanol and other biofuels, etc. It’s unfortunate that people come with such agendas to ignore science and facts.

    • Submitted by Bill Willy on 12/21/2015 - 03:58 pm.

      Anti-mining types with agendas?

      “climate change, feedlots, GMO’s, ethanol”

      What say we put a feedlot a quarter mile or so from your house. You okay with that? Think it might have an impact on the water in the well you and your family drink from? Think you might need to start buying your (“privatized”) cooking and drinking water from the grocery store? Think it might lower the value of your property?

      And climate change . . .

      “It’s unfortunate that people come with such agendas to ignore science and facts.”

      Who are the people ignoring the science and facts? The people that believe climate change is a real thing, and that the things we do — like, say, burning coal to run our TVs — are making it worse? Are those the people with the agenda or what? Not sure I get it. Sounds like you’re saying the people that believe what 99% of the scientists say are ignoring the science and facts. Not sure if I’ve got that right, or what you mean by “agendas.”

      From what I can tell, people that are concerned about the kind of thing feedlots do to groundwater (see Wisconsin’s recent feedlot “deregulation” and expansion and sudden drinking water trouble), and global warming, are people that are concerned about what sometimes seems to be the “lemming-like suicide march of humanity.”

      And, of course, the “anti-mining” people’s agenda is all about making life miserable for the 5,000 people that work in Minnesota’s mines (when they’re not laid off like they are now because of what’s happening in the almighty “markets”). It doesn’t (really) have anything to do with doing what they can to keep some really nasty stuff out of one of the most beautiful parts of the environment left on the planet (that’s “owned” by the other 5,395,000 Minnesotans that don’t work in the mining industry) AND keeping it out of northern Minnesota’s water supply.

      That’s all part of the “agenda movement,” I guess. No science involved whatsoever (in Laura Gauger’s work or comment below or anywhere else the anti-mining people go). The whole thing about any “pit water” or rain or melting snow running off that 550 million ton pile of Polymet’s tailings and waste rock turning into sulphuric acid is just something “they” made up, while the people without agendas — like the “pro-mining” people, Polymet, the IRRRB and that wonderful Swiss commodities trading Whale, Glencore — are the ones to believe because they’re working hard on behalf of YOUR best interests. They’re going to help you and all of us out by digging up and “processing-out” the five million tons of Arrowhead copper they’ll get out of that 550MT waste pile, taking 90% to 98% of the $20 billion or so in profits, and letting us deal with whatever acid winds up floating around killing whatever it touches for the next 1,000 years.

      None of that stuff is real. It’s just “an agenda.”

      And while I don’t know much about GMOs, don’t get me started on corn and the way we approach that aspect of “growing food” here in the U.S.A. (We grow 90+ million acres of the stuff but nobody eats it. We feed it to livestock, make ethanol out of it, and sell the rest overseas. Just for comparison’s sake, we only grow two to four million acres of “dry edible beans” because who likes beans?)

      As far as ethanol goes, the “agenda item” is it drives up the price of corn which is great for farmers, but it drives up the cost of food all over the globe which isn’t great for people that don’t have any money in places you wouldn’t be caught dead visiting because life is so bizarre and hard because it’s tough to find an indoor toilet or working light bulb or get enough to eat because it costs so much.

      But hey. . . Seeing as how it’s coming on Christmas, it’s good to remember that’s no skin off our noses and it’s too bad for them. They lose, we win. That’s just the way it goes, that’s the way the Bible says it was meant to be, and, obviously, anybody that tries to mess with that winning combination has a loser’s “agenda.”

      I guess. . . Like I say, I don’t know. I may not be reading things right. Maybe we could get a little clearer explanation of what “anti-mining” and “agendas” means.

  2. Submitted by Bill Kahn on 12/19/2015 - 09:54 am.

    Seem to recall Polymet actively preventing collection of data on baseline conditions not long ago.

  3. Submitted by Dennis Litfin on 12/19/2015 - 02:46 pm.

    You cannot sugercoat

    the Flambeau mine in order to equate it to the PolyMet. They are two completely different situations and they are not comparable. Tailings, bedrock, size, plus Flambeau has only been closed for what…18 years ? No comparison at all.

  4. Submitted by Laura Gauger on 12/21/2015 - 06:32 am.

    Flambeau -vs- PolyMet

    Comments attributed to the Wisconsin DNR’s Ann Coakley in Stephanie Hemphill’s story suggest to me that Coakley is either: (a) uninformed; or (b) intentionally trying to mislead the public about the groundwater situation at Flambeau.

    Environmental monitoring reports submitted by Rio Tinto to the Wisconsin DNR and obtained by FOIA clearly show that two monitoring wells (MW-1000PR and MW-1000R) located outside of the backfilled Flambeau pit and within 200 feet of the Flambeau River are showing excessively high levels of manganese – up to 40 or so times higher than baseline.

    The Flambeau EIS clearly reported that, in 1988, baseline manganese levels at the Flambeau Mine site were in the range of 190-350 parts per billion (ppb). The pit was backfilled in 1998 (subaqueous disposal with limestone amendment, similar to what is planned for PolyMet). Since that time manganese levels in MW-1000PR (125 feet from the river) have risen as high as 5,600 ppb. Manganese levels in MW-1000R (170 feet from the river) are even worse. They rose to 14,000 ppb in February 2011, and more recently (March 2014) were at 15,000 ppb. To put all this into perspective, Wisconsin’s public health enforcement standard for manganese is 300 ppb.

    The source of the high manganese levels at Flambeau? Apparently the backfilled mine pit.

    Rio Tinto consultant Foth Infrastructure and Environment (Foth also consults for PolyMet) predicted that manganese levels in the backfilled Flambeau pit would rise to about 550 ppb. Imagine their chagrin when levels came back as high as 42,000 ppb in April 2005 and 41,000 ppb in October 2014!

    What’s more, Foth clearly stated in the Flambeau Mine Permit application that the bedrock between the Flambeau pit and Flambeau River was “fractured” and that “all of the [contaminated] groundwater flowing through the Type II [high sulfur] waste rock in the reclaimed pit will exit the pit through the Precambrian rock in the river pillar and flow directly into the bed of the Flambeau River. Since this flow path is very short and occurs entirely within fractured crystalline rock, there will be little if any dispersion or retardation of the dissolved constituents in the groundwater.”

    Still, Ms. Coakley would have us believe that “the bedrock is not very permeable at all; it’s quite tight; there are very few fractures,” and that “monitoring wells outside the pit, close to the river, show groundwater meets state standards.” Come on, Coakley, don’t you read the reports submitted to your own department? And, if you do, who are you trying to fool … and why?

    One final point. When Rio Tinto’s Dave Cline says that monitoring shows the Flambeau River “remains protected” at the Flambeau Mine site, perhaps he should also mention that the company is not collecting any water samples in the river immediately adjacent to where the backfilled mine pit and fractured bed rock are located. It would be difficult to detect pollution when you are not collecting any samples at the locus of entry, eh? It’s the environmental equivalent of a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

    For full documentation of anything I have said, please visit my website, Flambeau Mine Exposed: If you click on the PolyMet tab, you will find a fully-referenced report (with hyperlinked footnotes) that compares Flambeau to PolyMet, and there is also a link to related comments submitted on the PolyMet EIS.

  5. Submitted by Elanne Palcich on 12/21/2015 - 09:07 am.

    PolyMet comment period

    Joe Smith obviously doesn’t have a copy of the PolyMet FEIS, or has not looked online. A 30 day comment period, followed by a 10 day extension period, in order to cover 3,500 pages of technical information, is absolutely ridiculous. This is just another way for our agencies to cover up, and push through environmental review, what will ultimately become an environmental disaster.

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