PolyMet’s Plan for Copper and Nickel Mining Near the Boundary Waters

Green Ideas and Ham at Red Stag

I had a chance to attend the Green Ideas and Ham meeting hosted by Environment Minnesota at the Red Stag in November. It’s a monthly get togetherto discuss environmental issues in Minnesota, and the breakfast is really good. November’s topic was proposed mining operations near the Boundary Waters. Here is a previous write-up on the event by William Fietzer at Examiner.com.

People who pay a lot closer attention to environmental issues in Minnesota, including issues that impact the Boundary Waters, had some great insights into the challenges faced by those who put clean water first.

Current Environmental Laws

The impression I got from presenters was that the laws on the books related to environmental regulations are generally well written. As you can probably imagine, the laws often end up on the books in reaction to earlier environmental disasters, and are designed to prevent the occurrence of future ones. At the time they were written, a serious environmental issue likely happened. People said, “something must be done”. Politicians proposed solutions with the help of environmental lobbyists. Mining companies threw a bunch of lobbyists and money at preventing the regulations. A compromised was reached. A bill became a law.

However, in practice, the laws on the books are not being enforced to the degree that they should be. Mining companies are darn good at getting around the laws. Additionally, laws are often loosened in order to accomodate new mining proposals in the name of jobs, showing that we’re not very good at learning from previous mistakes.

One thing that doesn’t seem to be well known about the proposed PolyMet mine near the Iron Range is that it’s not an iron mine. It’s mining sulfer and other more toxic elements from the earth, which then need to be leached from rocks using toxic chemicals, which is believed to lead to much more dangerous chemical run-offs than what iron mines generate. As I understand the process, ore is blasted from the earth, scooped up, crushed, then soaked in acid to separate the copper and nickel. The tailings, which are still acidic, are then disposed. Generally, the tailing piles eventually leak and damage ground water.

Try searching for “copper mine pollution” or nickel, to get a feel for the downside of mining these metals. If approved, this would be the first non-ferrous metal mine in the state.


As I understand it, PolyMet is a publicly traded Canadian company based in a skyscraper in downtown Vancouver with a CFO working a block or two from Wall Street in New York City and a Swiss based company investing $80 million in the project. Iron Range Resources chipped in $4 million as well. The people involved appear to have mining experience well beyond the people expected to regulate them. It makes me wonder if we really even know the questions we should be asking in order to make sure this goes well.

Additionally, this publicly traded Canadian company has one asset: This one mining project. A cynical person might ponder that this could be done in order to allow investors to suck the profits out of the project, claim poverty during labor negotiations, then declare bankruptcy once the mine is exhausted in order to offload the costs of reclaiming the land to MN and US taxpayers. Privatize the profits while socializing the risk.

A recent statement from PolyMet’s CEO, Joe Scipioni, regarding environmental regulations makes me wonder whether he understands the concerns of people questioning this project. To me, he sounds dismissive of legitimate concerns:

“Obviously there are people who don’t like mining; they are concerned with the environmental aspects and that’s the purpose of having an open meeting and to have that draft EIS come out so people can submit the comments, good or bad,” said Scipioni.

Having sat through presentations by people associated with organizations currently opposed to the PolyMet mine project, I didn’t get the impression that they are “people who don’t like mining”. These are people who enjoy modern conveniences that mining provides, such as cars, electricity, and cell phones. What I hear them saying is that mining’s health and environmental costs need to be understood and respected. I heard them saying that a mining project should not proceed until a mining operation such as Joe Scipioni’s PolyMet project can prove that it’s capable of mining without destroying the environment. The mine is responsible for proving that they can do this. Until they can, the shouldn’t be allowed to open the mine. Environmentalists opposed to the mine also seem to understand that the minerals in the ground are not perishable, so we could simply wait until mining technologies advance to the point where the minerals can be mined using cleaner processes. Life will go on without opening that mine at this time if the only way to open it now is to ignore the laws that are in place due to previous environmental disasters caused by mining.

The EPA also has questions that it wants answered. As the StarTribune reported back in June, only 3% of environmental reviews get marked unsatisfactory. PolyMet’s did.

Local Financial Benefits?

One attendee mentioned shared some thoughts on his experience on the range. He used to work in the iron mines, and mentioned that many people on the range are going to be sorely disappointed if they think this proposed mine will bring the Range back to the previous boom times. For one, technology has advanced to a degree that many fewer workers are needed to do the same volume of work. This happened in the iron mines as well: Technology advanced. More work was done with fewer workers. That trend is continuing, so a mine – even at full capacity – that may sound large if measured by volume, is not nearly as large if measured by economic benefit to the local community.

That being said, the mine would generate jobs in an area of the state that’s sorely in need of an economic boost. Heck the CEO (local) and CFO (not local) are paying themselves $400k/year without doing any mining, so at least two jobs have been created already.

Clean Jobs

The environmentalist crowd agreed that it’s tough to be in a position of simply saying “No” to projects that generate jobs for people who really need work. One thing they mentioned along this line is that they need to do a better job discussing the revenue potential of maintaining a clean environment, such as the very large eco-tourism market in the Arrowhead. People aren’t traveling from all over the world to Northern Minnesota to canoe on polluted lakes.


Here are a some questions I’d like to see answered:

1. Has there ever been a mine similar to this that hasn’t damaged local water and air? My assumption is that the answer to this is “NO!” since Wisconsin has a ban on sulfide mining (the acid leaching process used to extract the copper from 400 billion tons or rock) until it has been proven safe, somewhere else in the United States, for 10 years. That ban is still in place.

2. How are acid runoffs addressed in mine spills elsewhere?

3. Could it be cleaned up? For example, what if the acid used to leach minerals out of rocks reaches the water table?

4. How long will the damage last?

5. Is there any sort of escrow account that would guarantee funds would be available to clean up damage to the environment, were it to occur?

6. What are the environmental records of mines run by the corporations/people involved with PolyMet?

7. How long will it be until the acid-soaked mine tailings become inert?

8. PolyMet says that the mine will have “400 permanent jobs”. What is their definition of permanent? Are we talking about 2 decades worth of mining jobs for 400 people in exchange for hundreds of years of environmental damage? Help me weigh the accurately.

9. Why do mining companies change their names so often?

Based on what I’ve read so far, I think this comment from an Ely resident to the StarTribune’s June piece on PolyMet’s environmental challenges sums things up well:

Northern Minnesota desparately needs jobs. But neither our kids nor their friends at Ely Memorial High School are interested in spending their career underground. Ely hasn’t been a mining town in nearly 50 years. Our high school graduates go to college now. Even local proponents of the mine concede that the company may have to find itinerant workers for the underground jobs. Why risk Minnesota’s greatest treasure, our border lakes vacation land, for the benefit of a Canadian company and their Swiss investors?
posted by pschurke on Jun. 26, 10 at 12:18 PM

Do Minnesota’s benefits justify the costs?

12 thoughts on “PolyMet’s Plan for Copper and Nickel Mining Near the Boundary Waters”

  1. Ed – I’ve been reading your blog for quite some time and I’m glad to see you cover this issue. You’ve really hit the main points very well, and asked the questions that are on everyone’s mind.

    I might only suggest checking out the short film the Friends of the Boundary Waters (who I work for) produced about this issue in 2009. It’s available online at http://www.preciouswaters.org.

    Also, stay tuned in the months to come, particularly once the legislative session begins, as the industry tries to weaken environmental laws that it can’t comply with. (It seems that placing sulfide mines in wetlands and other watery ecosystems might just not be possible without serious pollution.)

    Already, the MN Chamber of Commerce has filed a lawsuit against the MPCA seeking to loosen the sulfate standard. They’ve also tried to relax the manganese standard. We expect to see more of the same soon.

  2. Pingback: Tweets that mention PolyMet’s Plan for Copper and Nickel Mining Near the Boundary Waters | The Deets -- Topsy.com
  3. I’m with you 100% on this posting. Mining companies for centuries have been pulling resources from the ground, increasingly that ground is someone else’s that they buy very undervalued ‘leases’ from doe-eyed politicians seeking temporary jobs and development in exchange. Then they all leave with their pockets full, leaving their waste and pollutants behind.

    Remember all those fenced off lakes up on the Range that we rode our bikes past in the summer of ’09…how long has it been since those lakes were polluted, wasn’t the last mine there done in about 1980? So 30+ years later there are lakes that are polluted to the point of fencing people away from touching them…and my understanding is that extraction toxins are worse in today’s process…so why do this to ourselves?

  4. Great information!

    Please post some links to the appropriate decision makers so we can make our opinions voices heard.

  5. JBaird, while there are a number of decision makers involved in the complicated process of mining permitting, etc., I would suggest the most immediately important person to weigh in with is Governor-elect Dayton (http://daytontransition.org/share-your-ideas/). The appointments made to state agencies will be important, and we’d like to see people appointed who know about this issue, take seriously the pollution risks, and are willing to hold polluters accountable or prevent polluting activities. I would also encourage everyone to contact their incoming state legislators and urge them to maintain Minnesota’s existing environmental laws that protect clean water and health, not attempt to weaken or rollback these protections. I’ll be back with more suggestions later!

  6. What one has to consider when talking about the Polymet project is the amount of resources and jobs created that this job would produce. Certainly, the environment IS important, but we have become a nation where almost nothing can get done, and jobs are secondary to Environmental radicalism. Should it take 8 years to get a project like this off the ground? No. But it has become more about blocking any project than actually guarding the environment.

    It is sad that we have allowed America to become powerless via the opposition of a scant few who wish America to become a desolate park run by special interests who basically have never gone camping or hiking in the first place. They sit in our cities and like to envision themselves as the conservators of everything “green” yet their very existance is to stop any sort of business effort.

    I read recently about how great a deposit of Copper/nickel would be for Afghanistan, because it was a huge find worth something on the order of 1 Trillion dollars. But what nobody is reporting is a similar find is already within America/Minnesota’s grasp, and it is the deposit sought by Polymet.

    What exactly do you think they make the batteries that run electric/hybrid cars on in the first place? But of course, such deep thinking seems to be beyond the green crowd.

  7. Eric K, I don’t think the average person opposed to the PolyMet mine is saying “no” to the project. As I read it, they’re saying “not now”. They’re kind of like conservative parents, who don’t tell their kids they should NEVER have sex. Just tell them that the timing is not right yet.

    Not yet, as in, PolyMet has not yet proven that they can mine the area without damaging the environment. The metals in the ground aren’t going anywhere, so why not wait until technology exists to extract it in an environmentally tolerable manner?

    Should it take eight years to get a project like this off the ground? Should the long term safety of the environment be subjected to arbitrary deadlines like that? Or, should we have some reasonable standards on what’s acceptible in our state, and hold companies up to meeting those standards?

  8. Eric is right on a couple points–America is a can’t do country.
    We can’t do our own mining and
    we can’t do it responsibly and
    we can’t do it without wrecking the water and land and
    we can’t do it with any sustainable jobs and
    we can’t do anything about it.

    So we are just supposed to let them do it,
    let the profits go to the Canadians and Swiss,
    let the jobs go away in less than a generation, and
    let the land and water be wrecked for multiple generations of our children.

    But Eric, how about not just shrugging it off…how doing something about it…how about creating mining techniques that are green, that would provide jobs for many generations all around the world for generations to come, right? How about creating methods of storing energy that don’t rely on mined ores? Wouldn’t that be more valuable and create more jobs?

  9. Erik – 81% of Minnesotans want our state agencies like the Pollution Control Agency and the DNR to do a better job of enforcing our environmental protection laws. (http://www.startribune.com/opinion/commentary/112403989.html) That doesn’t seem like a “scant few” to me.

    The problem is that if there’s a chance we could do this mining without polluting, it’s only going to happen because our government agencies work on behalf of the citizens and our clean water, and not just grease the skids and fast-track mining projects. Mining companies will operate to generate the highest profit possible, which is simply their nature, and we must hold them accountable to walk their talk about “environmental responsibility.”

    But our agencies haven’t been doing their job. In October, the Friends of the Boundary Waters Released information, which was reported by every paper in the state, that a 36-year-old mining exploration site, less than 3 miles from the BWCAW, has been leaching toxic pollution for decades. (http://www.startribune.com/local/104188178.html) The PCA has known about it, but won’t address the issue. The mining company that caused the pollution? Long gone. If we want to clean up the mess, it’ll be up to the taxpayers of Minnesota to pay for it.

    A month later, we find a story in the paper about a new special unit recently set up in the MPCA that multiple sources inside the agency said is fast-tracking politically-favored projects, like these new sulfide mines which our state has absolutely no experience reviewing or permitting. http://www.startribune.com/local/106828988.html

    What’s the industry doing? They’re working furiously behind the scenes to weaken our environmental protections. So far, in the past couple months, we’ve seen attempts by the MPCA to relax water quality standards for manganese (http://minnesota.publicradio.org/display/web/2010/11/22/manganese-drinking-water/) and sulfates (http://minnesota.publicradio.org/display/web/2010/11/28/wild-rice-standards/), two key pollutants that result from sulfide mining.

    How does the industry get such favors from the MPCA? By hiring the former commissioner as a lobbyist! http://www.startribune.com/local/56781297.html

    Need I go on?

    The point is that Minnesotans greatly value clean water. It’s our lakes that define us, and are a big part of our state’s identity. These new mines will be around for 20 or 30 years, they’ll employ half the number of people they’re promising, and when the mineral deposits are cleaned out, they’ll inevitably dissolve, file for bankruptcy, and leave taxpayers holding the bag.

    It’s not just environmental radicals that are concerned about this prospect. Heck, more people in the 8th District, the big mining district, want strong “damage deposit” laws than in the 4th or 5th District. Why? Because people in the Eighth have dealt with mining companies before and know you better get the money up front. These companies don’t exist to create jobs. They exist to extract minerals as efficiently as possible. They’ll bring in skilled workers from elsewhere in the country for the most high-paying jobs. They’ll automate the mines as much as possible, and they’ll leave you and me to pay for it.

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