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NorthMet jobs come with too much risk to Minnesota environment

Photo by John Harrington
The Sawtooth Mountains in northern Minnesota.

As many (all?) of you know, there’s a proposal for Minnesota’s first copper-nickel mine that’s the subject of a Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement. One of the major arguments in favor of allowing the proposal to proceed is that it will “create” 360 well-paying jobs.

That may seem like a lot. In fact, according to the Milwaukee Wisconsin Journal Sentinel, “Between 2000 and 2011, mining employment in Minnesota fell 25% to 4,245 jobs in 2011, according to the state’s Department of Employment and Economic Development.” So, the number of jobs “created” may disappear in the volatility of world demand (and prices) for the copper-nickel or other mined resources.

On the other hand, here’s a link to the images of copper mine pollution in the United States. Here’s a different link to nickel mine pollution. Now, here’s a link to pictures of Minnesota’s Boundary Waters. It doesn’t take much imagination to juxtapose copper-nickel mines and Boundary Waters and not like the results.

But, you say, we’ll have financial assurances from the mining corporation that the long term (hundreds of years) pollution will be “cleaned up.” Well, from the BBC comes this piece of information: “The average lifespan of a company listed in the S&P 500 index of leading US companies has decreased by more than 50 years in the last century, from 67 years in the 1920s to just 15 years today, according to Professor Richard Foster from Yale University.” Business Week reports that commercial corporations have only been in existence for about 500 years, the same amount of time pollution from the NorthMet project may require treatment. I suspect it might be a little tricky trying to collect from a non-existant entity in 200 years or so.

I firmly believe, and have argued here before, that Minnesota, if wisely managed, can have both jobs and a beautiful, clean (if not pristine) natural environment. But, we’re already failing to meet water quality standards in much of the area that could be affected by the proposed mining project. Does anyone think the proposed project will actually improve things?

Let’s look at this from a different perspective. If Minnesota’s state government were a Fortune 500 business, and were about to make a massive long-term investment in a company responsible for meeting and maintaining water quality standards on the Iron Range for the next 500 years, would you buy stock in that company? That’s what you’re being asked to do by the mine’s proposers. Wouldn’t you think there might be a less risky way to get 360 “high-paying” jobs created up on the Iron Range? How about an aircraft maintenance facility?

This post was written by John Harrington and originally published on My Minnesota. Follow John on Twitter: @JohnHthePoet.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Tom Weyandt on 12/16/2013 - 11:35 am.

    Why the big difference?

    I am wondering why there is such a big different between the iron ore mining and the copper mining when it comes to the question of the tailings. I am familiar with the issue of sulfide and how it creates all sorts of toxic results when exposed to air. I just don’t understand why that is, or wasn’t an issue with the iron mines.

    • Submitted by Elanne Palcich on 01/21/2014 - 01:40 pm.

      taconite vs copper

      Here’s my understanding. First, when open pit mining in northeast Minnesota, the land is logged, the glacial overburden is removed, and the rock is blasted into pieces. This blasted rock is then hauled in 230 ton trucks to the crushing facility. There it goes through several crushing and grinding processes. In the taconite process, the iron is removed magnetically from the oxide ores and formed into pellets. During this heating process, mercury is released into the air. Because there is some sulfur content in the rock, ground waste rock in the tailings basins leaches sulfates into the watershed. Sulfates are implicated in the loss of wild rice and the methylation of mercury which is then absorbed in fish tissue. Other heavy metals also leach into the watershed.

      Copper and nickel are embedded in sulfide ores. The blasting and crushing process outlined above would initiate copper-nickel mining. The copper and nickel metals would then be removed from the crushed/ground rock through heat, pressure, and acid in an autoclave, and through precipitation using hydrochloric acid and other chemicals in the hydromet.

      Sulfur from sulfide ores reacts with air and water (when the rock is brought to the surface, crushed and ground and exposed to air and water) to form sulfuric acid (H2SO4), which leaches from the waste rock piles, tailings, hydromet residue, and pit walls. Other heavy metals–including copper, nickel, cobalt, zinc, etc. –also leach into the watershed, with or without the sulfuric acid.

      Taconite rock contains about 25% iron, leaving behind 75% waste rock. Copper-nickel deposits contain less than 1% metals, leaving behind over 99% waste rock.

      I think you can begin to see that the footprint from copper-nickel mining will be much greater than that of the taconite. Also, the taconite runs in a band, whereas the copper-nickel mineralization runs throughout the Duluth Complex, which extends from Duluth up to the Boundary Waters.

      Taconite mining, which began in the 1950’s, is having a huge impact on the land and water. Copper-nickel mining would finish off northeast Minnesota–which is now Superior National Forest.

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