Acid mine drainage found at site near BWCAW

Spruce Road acid mine drainage

Spruce Road acid mine drainage

The Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness has discovered that a sulfide mining exploration site just two miles from the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is creating acid mine drainage 36 years after a mining company dug up ore as part of exploration efforts. The research was the focus of a story in the Minneapolis Star Tribune on Oct 2.

Drainage from the site contains copper, arsenic and other metals at levels which are harmful to aquatic life and human health. It is located on the Spruce Road, approximately 15 miles southeast of Ely and about two miles from the South Kawishiwi River and Little Gabbro Lake BWCAW entry points. (See interactive map.)

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) cannot demonstrate that it has monitored the site whatsoever since 1976 and, when asked about the lab results, the MPCA informed the Friends that the agency is unlikely to take any action to further analyze the drainage or reclaim the site to prevent the toxic pollution from continuing.

“The lab results fly in the face of what mining companies and our state agencies have been telling the public,” says Betsy Daub, Policy Director for the Friends. “The fact is that Minnesota’s sulfide ore is capable of producing toxic acid mine drainage, and the Pollution Control Agency and Department of Natural Resources have not addressed it for over 30 years.”

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Sulfide mining controversy makes Star Tribune op-ed pages

Duluth Metals and Antofagasta recently organized a visit to the state by the Chilean head of Antofagasta, the Chilean ambassador, and other officials to promote the Twin Metals mining venture three miles from the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The group met with Governor Tim Pawlenty, Ely mayor Roger Skraba, and the media.

The visit took them to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, where they met with the paper’s editorial board. The paper subsequently published an editorial calling for the issue to be of greater prominence in public discussions, and in the governor’s race. The editorial’s overall tone was skeptical:

The state desperately needs these jobs, but this issue is far more complex than that. Politicians and firms like Antofagasta need to understand that Minnesotans will not trade the state’s soul — the BWCA, Lake Superior, the North Shore forest — for economic gain. The Antofagasta/Duluth Metals project’s eastern edge is just a few miles from the BWCA. Older nonferrous mines have an abysmal environmental track record. While technological strides certainly have been made, assurances that things are better now aren’t going to cut it.

Nonferrous mining companies don’t just need to win over the regulators. They need to win over the public. Facts, openness and a willingness to work with their critics will serve them well, but the task ahead of them is formidable.

Read the whole editorial »

As a response to the editorial, Scott Strand, the executive director of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, wrote a commentary calling for even more skepticism of the mining proposals. Strand rightly points out that mining companies always overstate the job potential, and downplay the environmental risks.

Modern mineral extraction is very machinery-intensive and generally creates far fewer jobs than promised. The foreign mining interests who control these operations typically do relatively little local hiring, and they make only limited use of local suppliers. The oft-promised downstream processing and manufacturing jobs rarely materialize, because the business plan is to export the raw minerals, today mostly to China. Very little of the companies’ profits stay in the communities where the mining takes place. And, particularly with today’s extremely volatile commodities markets, mining jobs can’t be expected to last. Mining is a boom-and-bust industry, and Minnesota and the nation have seen time and again what happens to schools and communities when mines shut down abruptly because the profits suddenly aren’t high enough.

Read Scott Strand’s commentary »

Mine proposal 3 miles from BWCAW gets Chilean cash infusion

A mining company seeking to develop a sulfide mine approximately three miles from the BWCAW has signed a $130 million deal with a Chilean mining conglomerate to advance the project. Duluth Metals’ has entered into the joint venture with Antofagasta PLC as Duluth is busy with exploratory drilling in the area around Highway 1, the Spruce Road, and Birch Lake.

A Duluth Metals drill rig in the forest near Ely, MN

A Duluth Metals drill rig in the forest near Ely, MN

The Minneapolis Star Tribune published a front-page story about the development on July 24:

A Canadian company has signed a deal with a global mining partner to develop a copper-nickel mine southeast of Ely, Minn., that would be larger than the controversial Polymet mine already planned on the Iron Range.

Unlike the Polymet operation — a surface mine that environmentalists say threatens to pollute waters that run to Lake Superior — the new mine would be underground. But its eastern edge would lie only a few miles from the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, raising the possibility of any pollution quickly reaching the BWCA.

Continue reading…

Victory: PolyMet will “go to summer school”

More work will be done on the flawed and incomplete draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the PolyMet sulfide mining proposal near Hoyt Lakes. The responsible government agencies recently announced that a supplemental draft will be prepared to address concerns raised by environmentalists, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and many others.

The move is exactly what the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness’s “Send PolyMet to Summer School” petition campaign asked for. It was also included in the list of recommendations the EPA made when it gave the project’s draft EIS a failing grade in February.

The EPA said the PolyMet draft EIS not only described unacceptable environmental impacts, but was also inadequate and did not provide enough information to fully understand the proposal and what it’s effects on water and other natural resources would be. The document also lacked substantive information about the “damage deposit” PolyMet would provide to pay for clean-up in the event the company goes bankrupt or otherwise walks away from the mine.

In a press release, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources said:

The supplemental draft EIS will:

  • Fully incorporate the proposed land exchange between PolyMet and the U.S. Forest Service, Superior National Forest.
  • Develop and incorporate additional project modifications, alternatives and mitigation measures to minimize environmental impacts.
  • Provide clear descriptions of alternatives and mitigation.
  • Consider EPA and other public comments and recommendations.

The supplemental draft EIS will be a fully revised document. It will build on the draft EIS and combine and simplify the two separate project and land exchange EISs. The supplemental draft EIS will provide appropriate public disclosure, include at least one public information meeting, ensure compliance with federal and state environmental review laws and regulations, and provide an effective and efficient process.

The Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness will continue to pay close attention to the environmental review process as it moves forward. The decision to create the supplement draft EIS is a positive step, but, because of the severity of the faults in the draft EIS, a significant amount of work needs to be done, including field work gathering additional data. (More information from the Friends.)

Send PolyMet to Summer School – sign the petition

We are proud to announce a new petition campaign insisting that PolyMet Mining Corp. and the responsible government agencies heed the Environmental Protection Agency and do the remedial work necessary to address serious concerns raised by the EPA in February. Sign the petition »

A Failing Grade

In February, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declared that the PolyMet mine proposal presented unacceptable risks to the environment.

The EPA also said that the project should not proceed as proposed, but that the company and the responsible government agencies should do remedial work to bring it up to standards.

The “Send PolyMet to Summer School” petition simply calls for PolyMet and the agencies to do exactly what the EPA said they should. Rather than proceed to the usual next step in environmental review, they should do more work and give the public a chance to review it and offer feedback.

Sign the petition »

What did the EPA say?

In its February 18, 2010 comments letter on the PolyMet draft Environmental Impact State (EIS), the EPA said:

“…Because of deficiencies in the Draft EIS, additional information, alternatives, and mitigation measures should be evaluated and made available for public comment in a revised or supplemental draft EIS.”

The EPA rated the PolyMet draft EIS as “Environmentally Unacceptable (EU) / Inadequate (3).” This is the most negative rating possible. According to the EPA, “Environmentally Unacceptable (EU)” is reserved for projects that have “adverse environmental impacts that are of sufficient magnitude that EPA believes the proposed action must not proceed as proposed.”

Sign the petition »

Is this unusual?

Yes. The rating has only been given out to 41 of the 11,834 EISes the EPA has reviewed since 1987 (0.3 percent).

What does this mean for the PolyMet DEIS?

The EPA’s comments identify a number of gaps and flaws in the analysis that must be addressed. The EPA recommends the creation of a supplemental DEIS to address gaps such as a lack of financial assurance in the DEIS, incomplete analysis of water quality impacts, a lack of environmental analysis of necessary land exchanges, inadequate mitigation and protection of important wetlands, and mercury contamination of the Lake Superior watershed. Failure to address these issues would cause the EPA to “not support the issuance of a permit for this project.”

The EPA has the authority to force higher-level review of the PolyMet proposal through two separate mechanisms. If their concerns are not met, the EPA can refer the project to the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), an executive agency that adjudicates environmental disputes. Second, the EPA can “elevate” the issue to higher levels of the EPA and the US Army Corps of Engineers under the Clean Water Act.

Sign the petition »

Media coverage of EPA statement:

Participating Organizations

Lead: Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness

Add your name to the list! Contact if you want to be included as a participating organization.

Sign the petition »

Revealing interview with EPA about PolyMet

Craig Stellmacher at the has provided a unique and in-depth interview with Ken Westlake of the Environmental Protection Agency about the agency’s comments on the PolyMet proposal and the failing grade the EPA gave the draft environmental impact statement.

In a 40-minute phone conversation, Stellmacher asked the right questions about the specifics of the agency’s concerns. As Stellmacher says, the EPA seemed to be the “missing witness” at the recent hearings in the Minnesota House and Legislature. This interview is the kind of testimony that we might have heard if they’d been there:

“The most compelling issue from our point of view, is the admission in the Draft EIS that this project will violate state and tribal water quality standards.”

Listen to the interview below, read the article and transcript here.

March 10 Senate hearing time moved to 5 p.m.

Wednesday’s hearing about sulfide mining, including legislation that seeks to strengthen Minnesota’s “damage deposit” regulations, has been bumped up an hour. The hearing is now scheduled to start at 5 p.m. It will also feature testimony from the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy about the flaws in the PolyMet proposal that they have identified.

Please attend this important hearing to show your support. Get there early, at least an hour, if you want to get into the room, but there should be a lively crowd watching the proceedings in overflow spaces that will be provided.

Wear a blue shirt and look for folks handing out “Protect Clean Water” stickers!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010
Committee on Environment and Natural Resources
5 p.m.
Room 15 Capitol

PolyMet makes false statement about EPA criticism

Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency gave the PolyMet mine draft environmental impact statement the lowest possible rating the agency can assign such a document. Citing incomplete work and unacceptable pollution, the EPA assigned the project its “Environmentally Unsatisfactory – Inadequate” rating.

The rating highlights the extraordinary threats represented by the mine to clean water. The agency does not assign such ratings very often. In the past 23 years, the EPA has reviewed 11,834 EISes and gave the rating it gave to PolyMet to only 41, or 0.3 percent. In the upper Midwest region, the agency gave the rating to just 0.2 percent of the 844 EISes it reviewed.

Yesterday, PolyMet released a statement seeking to control the damage the EPA’s rating has done to its credibility. Unfortunately, the company included a statement in their press release that is blatantly false:

“The EPA’s rating of the draft EIS as unsatisfactory appears to have been based on the ‘proposed project’ without  consideration of alternatives or mitigations discussed in the document.”

This is false. In page two of the EPA’s letter, the agency states:

“This rating applies to the Proposed Action, the Mine Site Alternative and the Tailings Basin Alternative.”

There is no way to excuse such a misleading statement as PolyMet has made. Rather than offering specific details that respond to the EPA’s criticisms, the company has chosen only to muddy the waters.

Historic mining hearings scheduled at state capitol

Clean water advocates are encouraged to attend at least one of the three hearings scheduled by the Minnesota Senate Environment & Natural Resources Committee the week of March 8.

The hearings will address the scope of mining exploration in the state, the history of how existing regulations were created, the PolyMet project, and a bill that would strengthen laws requiring a “damage deposit” from mining companies.

Please attend the meetings to show visible, vocal support for clean water. Wear a blue shirt to be part of this demonstration of citizen concern. More details coming soon!


Monday, March 8

12:30 p.m. – Room 107, Minnesota State Capitol

  • History of mining regulation and environmental review
  • PolyMet presentation on NorthMet Project

6 p.m. – Room 15, Minnesota State Capitol

  • PolyMet Draft EIS comments

Wednesday, March 10

5 p.m. – Room 15, Minnesota State Capitol

  • Financial assurance (“damage deposit”) legislation

Legislation to strengthen mining regulations

Legislation has recently been introduced in the Minnesota legislature to  strengthen the state’s financial assurance regulations. These rules govern the “damage deposit” that mining companies are required to provide before mining.

The legislation would make common sense, necessary changes to close loopholes and protect our water, fish and wildlife, and our tax dollars. Take action immediately to support the financial assurance regulations. Here’s everything you need:

  1. Enter your address and find out who represents you here:
  2. Call or e-mail your representative and senator and ask them to support:

It will only take you a minute or two and could make the difference between this bill even getting a committee hearing or being beaten back by powerful mining interests. Please contact your legislators today!

What exactly does the bill do? Here are the highlights:

  1. Requires financial assurance to be discussed in the environmental review
  2. Protects us from corporate shell games and hold companies who profit from mines responsible for clean-up
  3. Improve government transparency when setting and adjusting financial assurance
  4. Mandates that long-term water treatment be covered in calculations
  5. Requires the DNR to consult with financial experts in other agencies

Read the bill itself if you’re interested in the rest of the details. Please, contact your legislators right now.

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