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.
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?