Native Issues in the Halls of Government


Sulfide Mining Update

It’s time to take another look at the grand plans to ravage northern Minnesota and kill off the remaining wild rice. Yes, I’m talking about sulfide mining, brought to you by a host of multinational corporations that are promising jobs, economic vitality and concern for the environment.

On this latter point, readers should know that Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) assured the Japanese public that the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station would operate safely, before there was an earthquake two years ago and equipment failed, the nukes melted down and radioactive materials were released into the atmosphere. This was the worst nuclear disaster since the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine exploded, in 1986.

Likewise BP and its contractors satisfied the environmental regulators, prior to the explosion and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig three years ago. The BP oil disaster released an estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, off the coast of Louisiana.

This is to say that corporations will lie to the public in the quest for maximizing profits; and technology sometimes goes awry. In the case of the sulfide (copper-nickel) mining projects underway in the Minnesota Arrowhead region, this is a new type of mining for the state. And the history of sulfide mining in the American West presents a catalogue of environmental catastrophes. No such project has failed to pollute surface and groundwater.

In the case of Minnesota, the copper-nickel mining projects are within the 1854 Treaty Ceded Territory, and the Ojibwe bands retain hunting, fishing and gathering rights there in perpetuity – forever. The Ojibwe bands have a seat at the table, as far as the ongoing environmental review process. Specifically, there are serious concerns that run-off from copper-nickel mine waste will pollute waterways that support wild rice beds.

In 2011, Minnesota legislators tried to ditch the sulfate standard for wild rice waters (10 milligrams of sulfate per liter), which has been in effect since 1973. However, the lawmaking brainiacs in St. Paul found to their dismay that the federal Clean Water Act trumped their feckless proposal. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), through a $1.5 million legislative appropriation, is conducting a Wild Rice Standards Study "to gather additional information about the effects of sulfate and other substances on the growth of wild rice." The research began last year and is expected to be completed by December 2013, according to the MPCA.

The ongoing Great Recession is a driver behind the mining schemes in northern Minnesota, which are sited on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. PolyMet, which has been in the lead among the corporations developing copper-nickel mines, has a project that involves an exchange of more than 6,000 acres of publicly owned lands throughout the Superior National Forest in St. Louis, Lake and Cook counties. This includes more than 1,000 acres of high quality wetlands, which would be destroyed, according to the environmental group Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness. The group contends that PolyMet’s NorthMet Project "would cause long-term water pollution in the Lake Superior watershed, critical plant and wildlife habitat would be lost, and other serious and significant impacts would occur."

PolyMet’s initial Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) was rejected on the basis that it contained insufficient data to predict the impacts from the mine. Nancy Schuldt, the water protection coordinator for the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, told me earlier this year that PolyMet is on track to release a supplemental draft EIS in June.

PolyMet "successfully pilot-tested reverse osmosis water treatment technology for reducing pollutants (not only sulfate) in their tailings basin discharge," Schuldt wrote in a January e-mail. She also mentioned that Twin Metals Minnesota, which is exploring on 32,000 acres on the northern edge of the Iron Range, is "proposing to conduct some baseline hydrologic studies in the watersheds surrounding their potential underground mining project [at Birch Lake]." Schuldt said that these studies apparently reflect the corporation’s recognition of the PolyMet EIS setback – "evidently the next copper-nickel project has learned from PolyMet’s experience that it is neither cost-nor time-effective to put off critical data collection."

The sulfide mining juggernaut is rolling along, with the support of state and federal elected officials. Sulfide mining has a high profile in Duluth and the Arrowhead; but there is not much recognition of the dangers involved by the citizenry in the Twin Cities.

Hopefully, sulfide mining will be on the agenda when Idle No More, Minnesota holds its Environmental and Treaty Rights Symposium: Land, Water, Air from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday, March 22 at the American Indian Center, 1530 E. Franklin Ave.