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Northern Minnesota’s wild forests and pristine lakes are the epicenter for new mine proposals that could forever change the region. These new mines, much different than Minnesota’s traditional iron mines, would extract copper, nickel and other metals from sulfide-bearing ore.
What is Proposed
PolyMet Mining is the furthest along in the environmental review and permitting process. In 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency gave the company’s draft Environmental Impact Statement a failing grade, calling the mine’s environmental impacts “unacceptable” and the review itself “inadequate.”
PolyMet is now back at the drawing board trying to develop a new plan that won’t present such serious pollution risks. Unfortunately, the company has not changed its plan to destroy more than 1,000 acres of pristine wetlands; if approved, the project would represent the largest such destruction ever permitted in Minnesota.
While PolyMet is in the Lake Superior watershed, and threatens rivers that flow into the St. Louis River, another company is proposing a mine just a few miles from the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Twin Metals is developing a proposal for an underground mine next to, and maybe even under, Birch Lake, outside Ely. Any pollution from this mine would contaminate waters that flow through the popular White Iron Chain of Lake and ultimately into the wilderness.
A Threat to Our Water
Sulfide mining kills and contaminates fish, makes water unsafe to drink, and harms entire ecosystems. Such mining has never been done in Minnesota before, but has caused devastating pollution all over the country and the world.
The problem is that when water and air come into contact with the massive amounts of waste produced by this type of mining, sulfuric acid is created. This acid leaches out toxic metals from the waste, and then contaminates nearby water bodies.
Every year, the Environmental Protection Agency analyzes where pollution in the United States comes from. In 2010, the hardrock mining industry, which includes sulfide mining, was once again the biggest source of pollution in the country.
Hardrock mining was found to be responsible for 41 percent of all polluted discharges tracked by the EPA — the next biggest polluter was coal-fired power plants, at just 18 percent of the country’s pollution.
A Track Record of Irresponsibility
Acid mine drainage has been a serious problem in states like South Dakota, Montana, and New Mexico. The U.S. Forest Service estimates that, in the Western states, 5,000 to 10,000 miles of streams have been polluted by such mining.
Rather than pay to clean up and treat the discharge from sulfide mines, which can last for decades or centuries, mining companies have a shameful habit of filing for bankruptcy when the mine is no longer profitable and walking away. Citizens are forced to choose between either living with the pollution, or paying for clean up themselves. Such clean-up often costs tens or hundreds of millions of dollars.
Perhaps the best evidence of the industry’s inability to mine safely comes from Wisconsin. There, voters approved a law in 1997 that forbid any new mines unless the company could point to an example of a mine that had operated and been closed without polluting for 10 years. No new sulfide mines have been proposed in the state since.
Economic and Employment Issues
Jobs and economic development are the most common arguments in favor of allowing sulfide mining in Minnesota. While nobody denies new jobs are needed, especially on the Iron Range and across northern Minnesota, there are at least three problems with expecting an economic boom from sulfide mining:
Northern Minnesota, especially communities near the Boundary Waters and Lake Superior, have strong tourism and recreation industries. Canoe outfitters, resorts, cabins, restaurants, fishing guides, and many more businesses depend on the area’s reputation for beauty and solitude, along with clean water. The region is also growing as a destination for tele-commuters and retirees who live there for the outdoor opportunities and high quality-of-life.
Additionally, sulfide mining companies often make predictions about jobs that will be created never pan out. Already, PolyMet has reduced its predicted job numbers by 20 percent from original estimates.As automation increases in the industry, corporate profits rise while job opportunities decline.
Even if mining companies do hit their job predictions, it is usually for a short time. As global demand for metals fluctuate, and as different parts of the mine are developed, the need for workers rise and fall quickly. This means a cycle of hiring and lay-offs which can devastate communities, hurting small businesses which depend on steady populations.
Most people in Minnesota do not even know about PolyMet, Twin Metals and other sulfide mining proposals in northern Minnesota. And yet major decisions about being made as exploration occurs, mine proposals are developed, and environmental review conducted.
Minnesotans need to learn the truth about sulfide mining and make their feelings about the issue known to decision-makers. Many leaders don’t know the whole story about the potential negative impacts of mining, nor do they grasp the level of concern from people who care about protecting our clean water and wilderness.
It is time for Minnesotans who care about the future of our lakes, rivers, streams and wilderness to speak up and ensure short-term thinking does not lead to long-term pollution.