Why a Minnesota environmental group is pushing new legislation based on a bill written by the mining industry in Montana

The tailings dam at the Mount Polley copper and gold mine
REUTERS/Cariboo Regional District
In 2014, the tailings dam at the Mount Polley copper and gold mine in south-central British Columbia failed, spewing billions gallons of wastewater and toxic mining byproducts into nearby waters.

 The Legislature this year has not been kind to those who want a tougher regulatory road for copper-nickel mines in northeastern Minnesota.

Most Republicans — and a contingent of DFLers — contend state regulations are strict, if not onerous, and have cheered the jobs that two separate and controversial mine proposals could bring to the Iron Range. Any chatter around changing rules for permitting such mines has gained little traction at the Capitol.

Now, one environmental group is hoping to win skeptics to their side with the help of legislation written by the mining industry in another state: Montana.

State lawmakers there approved a slate of new regulations in 2015 to increase scrutiny of the hardrock mining industry. They were written by the Montana Mining Association and approved overwhelmingly in the Republican-led Legislature after a 2014 disaster at a mine in British Columbia.

The Minnesota bill introduced Wednesday, Senate File 2873, is modeled on Montana’s measure and would put new restrictions on certain waste storage dams for future copper-nickel mines in Minnesota. It’s sponsored by Sen. Paul Anderson, R-Plymouth, while a companion bill in the House is led by Rep. Steve Sandell, DFL-Woodbury.

State Sen. Paul Anderson
State Sen. Paul Anderson
“Our point was that if we can’t start with a bill that was written by the industry itself, and was passed nearly unanimously in a mining friendly state, what can we do?” said Aaron Klemz, a spokesman for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, describing talks with lawmakers. “We’re really trying to break through this log jam that says mining is a subject you can’t talk about at the Legislature in a serious way.”

The MCEA has been a vociferous opponent of the potential PolyMet and Twin Metals mines. The organization’s measure is co-sponsored by Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, and a handful of DFLers from the Twin Cities metro, including Rep. Anne Claflin, DFL-South St. Paul, who is the vice chairwoman of the House Environment and Natural Resources Finance Division.

It does not appear to have won the initial backing of any lawmakers in northern Minnesota, however, and unlike in Montana, pro-mining groups are skeptical of the need for the legislation.

Spill leads to bill

In 2014, the tailings dam at the Mount Polley copper and gold mine in south-central British Columbia failed, spewing billions gallons of wastewater and toxic mining byproducts into nearby waters. The spill caused extensive cleanup and review, although the mine eventually reopened with a newly reinforced tailings dam.

The breach resonated across the mining world. In a 2015 op-ed for the Montana Mining Association, president Mark Thompson wrote their state “took a long, hard look” at current laws “to prevent a similar disaster from occurring in Montana.”

While Thompson noted Montana had never had a spill of that magnitude, they still proposed “significant engineering and review requirements” for new tailings storage facilities. Their bill eventually passed, and was even lauded by some environmental groups.

Klemz said Minnesota’s bill follows Montana’s closely. In part, it would require new or expanded tailings facilities at nonferrous mines — which includes copper and nickel but not iron ore — to undergo independent review by a panel of three mine engineers and says those tailings dams must adhere to Canadian safety rules. Ongoing inspection and reviews of the waste operations by the independent panel would be mandatory, too.

Copper-nickel mines are considered to be more environmentally risky than traditional iron ore mining in northern Minnesota because the process can produce heavy metals that leach into water.

Notably, “dry stack” tailings facilities, which remove water from tailings, would be exempt from extra review under the bill. They are exempt in the Montana bill as well. Environmental groups have claimed the dry stack method might be a safer alternative for PolyMet than the tailings basin the mine plans to use. But Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources said the method was more appropriate in dry regions, and the agency had other concerns with requiring PolyMet to use dry stack technology.

State Rep. Steve Sandell
State Rep. Steve Sandell
“Once exposed to rain or snow, the dry stack becomes wet, so most of the benefits of dry stacking are lost,” says DNR documents tied to PolyMet’s dam safety permits.

While the MCEA bill would not be retroactive, it would apply to PolyMet if the mine asks to expand, Klemz said. The $1 billion project near Hoyt Lakes currently has all permits necessary to begin construction although it is being fought in court by the MCEA and other environmental organizations.

Klemz said the DNR, Minnesota’s main regulator for mining projects, already completed independent review of PolyMet and followed other principles of the MCEA bill while scrutinizing the mine. But Klemz said their measure still creates stricter mining laws as a whole, and makes some DNR practices legal requirements.

“We looked at this bill as a way to extend some of the lessons learned in the PolyMet process,” Klemz said. “Both, some of the things that the DNR was doing that we thought were positive, but also some of the things that we think need to be spelled out in Minnesota laws for any future copper nickel mine proposal.”

In a written statement, DNR assistant commissioner Jess Richards said his agency believes the measure is primarily an effort to initiate a conversation, rather than an attempt to move legislation this year,” given its introduction late in Minnesota’s legislative session. As such, the DNR is not prepared to offer detailed comments on the measure. However, we would observe that the bill, as written, lacks definition in many areas and includes language that would conflict with existing mining and dam safety laws.”

Skeptics unswayed

Despite the bill’s Montana origins and the limited GOP support, backers of copper-nickel mining in Minnesota criticized the proposal or questioned the need for new and tougher rules.

Nancy Norr, chairwoman of Jobs for Minnesotans, a coalition that includes business and labor groups, said she had not reviewed the MCEA bill, but noted the state already has a “very strong regulatory framework for all mining.” Those regulations have gained public trust, she said. “And we don’t need to add more regulation on top of what already exists.”

PolyMet took roughly 15 years to get full state approval, and the DNR secured a financial assurance package for clean up that could rise as high as $1 billion when the mine is operating. Twin Metals is still awaiting federal approvals and the company has yet to apply for state permits for their mine plan near Ely.

Frank Ongaro, executive director of Mining Minnesota, said his group is always open to a substantive discussion of mining regulations, but he said those should be led by the DNR and include a wide range of people who care about the industry. He also stressed DNR’s independent review of PolyMet. “The bill is unnecessary because the agency already has the authority to do exactly this and they just did it with the best example possible,” he said.

Ongaro further questioned why the mining regulations applied only to new nonferrous mines, instead of all mines in Minnesota. “If you truly cared about public safety and thought there was an issue related to tailings basins  — and I’m not sure there is — then you would want to require this for all tailings basins, whether they’re new ones in one part of a mining industry or ones that are 40 or 50 years old and in another part of the mining industry,” Ongaro said. “If it’s just a piece of legislation to try and stop copper-nickel mining, well then just say so.”

State lawmakers are racing to find a compromise on a two-year spending plan in St. Paul before the Legislature is set to adjourn May 20. Klemz acknowledged a bill filed this late in session was highly unlikely to pass, even with support from legislators in both parties.

But he said the endeavor was still worthwhile, and has a better chance of gaining steam in the Legislature in the future compared to other attempts to implement new mining regulations.

“We’re hopeful that by starting this conversation now with a wide ranging group of suburban moderates as the core, that we can eventually have this conversation state wide and include folks who live downstream in the Duluth area as well as Iron Range delegation,” Klemz said.

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Comments (21)

  1. Submitted by joe smith on 05/09/2019 - 02:23 pm.

    Shocking, an anti-mining environmental group is trying to stop or delay mining. This has been going on for 15-20 years with Polymet. When they pass the permitting process, let them mine.

    • Submitted by David Lundeen on 05/09/2019 - 02:39 pm.

      I can’t wait to hear you complain about tax dollars being spent on clean up after PolyMet declares bankruptcy and leaves torn.

      • Submitted by joe smith on 05/09/2019 - 05:00 pm.

        David, I’m still waiting on the tailing ponds used in the taconite process to ruin the Range. That was used 50 years ago to scare folks, didn’t happen.

        • Submitted by David Lundeen on 05/09/2019 - 06:15 pm.

          Iron mining isn’t copper mining. Besides, if you are so eagerly peddling job gains under this administration, of which all aren’t being filled, it seems unnecessary to destroy the environment for 200 temp jobs.

        • Submitted by Margaret Cullen on 05/09/2019 - 07:14 pm.

          There was plenty of pollution from the previous mining up North. Lake Superior was trashed.

          • Submitted by joe smith on 05/10/2019 - 10:08 am.

            Margaret, look at the water studies 40 years after Reserve mining was forced to stop dumping tailings in Lake Superior because of asbestos like materials in the water. Judge Miles Lord sided with studies saying the tailings were adding asbestos like elements to the lake. A study 40 years after show the same amount of asbestos like materials in the lake. Nothing changed. Somehow the story has changed over time but bottom line was Reserve mining returning rocks, that Lake Superior is built on, didn’t affect the lake. Tailings are just rocks that taconite is extracted from.

            • Submitted by Brian Nelson on 05/10/2019 - 10:52 am.

              Joe, to what extent did the tailings effect spawning habitat and consequently commercial fishing?

            • Submitted by Henk Tobias on 05/10/2019 - 11:17 am.

              Those asbestos fiber are not naturally occurring so all i can say is wow, 40 years later and its still showing up. I guess it goes to show you how long lasting the effects of pollution can be and how long it take nature to recover. On the positive side, tiny tailings particles don’t have to be filtered out of drinking water any more and the water clarity has returned more to normal. Fish are spawning again.

            • Submitted by Alan Muller on 05/10/2019 - 04:56 pm.

              No, tailings are rocks ground to a powder, which is something else entirely…..

        • Submitted by Matt Haas on 05/09/2019 - 10:41 pm.

          Besides, you just love moonscapes like Mt. Polley, pictured above. I suppose you actually think people will want to come see it.

        • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 05/10/2019 - 08:49 am.

          Well, um…

          There was never any controversy on the use of tailing ponds, it was the dumping tailings into Superior until Reserve Mining was forced to create a tailing pond inland by those nasty environmentalists and Judge Miles Lord.

          Let’s keep our straw men in order here….

        • Submitted by Brian Nelson on 05/10/2019 - 09:08 am.

          Joe could you please explain how sulfide mining and taconite mining are an exact equivalent and how the history of taconite mining precisely predicts the future of sulfide mining in Minnesota?

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 05/09/2019 - 06:00 pm.

    “…the DNR secured a financial assurance package for clean up that could rise as high as $1 billion when the mine is operating…” Unless that financial assurance package includes actual cash – $250 million would be a decent start – deposited before mining operations begin, in a financial institution that’s not under the control of the mining company, the “financial assurance package” is of less value than a promise from the most crooked politician you can name. Historically, when tailings ponds fail, or some other grotesquely-polluting incident takes place, flooding neighboring land and watersheds with toxic waste that, quite literally, will not go away within several lifetimes, mining industry history is unequivocal – the company declares bankruptcy and walks away, leaving local citizens holding the bag for the cost of treatment and environmental cleanup. Arrowhead politicians willing to trade centuries of polluted land and water that cannot produce recreational or agricultural dollars in exchange for a few hundred jobs that might last 20 years in an industry that’s rapidly automating are betraying their constituents and all their fellow Minnesotans.

  3. Submitted by Henk Tobias on 05/10/2019 - 07:54 am.

    The problem with this bill is that its closing the barn door AFTER the cows get out. To build a “secure” (If that’s even possible) tailings holding facility mining has to have already happened. This type of mining has NEVER been done safely anywhere in the world, it should not be allowed, period.

    Comparing this to taconite mining is ridiculous.The “ore” in this type of hard rock mining contains high levels of sulfides. If sulfide ore or sulfide tailings are exposed to water and air (both of which we have in abundance) during mining, a chemical reaction creates sulfuric acid – basically battery acid. So you can see how foolish it is to compare battery acid to the tailings created from taconite mining. But since it was brought those contain high levels of asbestos. One of the reasons they stopped dumping it into Lake Superior.

  4. Submitted by Kevin Powers on 05/10/2019 - 08:10 am.

    Earlier this year there was a tailings dam collapse in Brumadinho, Brazil https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2019/01/brazil-brumadinho-mine-tailings-dam-disaster-could-have-been-avoided-say-environmentalists/

    That mine was operated by Vale, one of the major mining companies -the ones that have the staff and resources to do things “right”. Yet this dam collapsed killing hundreds of people and displacing a town.

    I am generally supportive of mining. As consumers of the earths resources I believe we have a moral obligation not to drive all mining to third-world countries where mines operate in uncontrolled fashion with disastrous results to the environment.

    Mining can be conducted in a responsible fashion and rules such as this proposed legislation are part of that process.

  5. Submitted by Joe Frank on 05/11/2019 - 08:10 am.

    There is no such thing as a risk free mine, just like there is no risk free farming, logging or just about anything (think social media and all the privacy leaks). What environmentalists should be doing, rather than trying anything just to stop mining exploration, is working with the mining companies and with government to minimize risks.

  6. Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 05/16/2019 - 09:06 am.

    What is it called when you serve a foreign entity or institution at the expense of the general welfare of the United States of America?

    MAGA in this case = Making America Grovel Again

    Bow down to your new lords, Patriots.

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