On Aug. 5, a crew from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was excavating an old leaking mine in Colorado, when workers using a backhoe were surprised by a deluge that came pouring out. Some three million gallons of waste water from the abandoned Gold King Mine spilled into Cement Creek and then into the Animas River.
An article on the Accuweather Web site noted that the plume of toxic water deposited “dangerous metals, such as lead, arsenic, cadmium and mercury along hundreds of miles [of waterways] through three states.”
The City of Durango and La Plata County reportedly declared states of emergency. The spill turned the Animas River a sickly ochre shade and made its way south to the Navajo Nation, where farmers in the northern part of the reservation face ruin, with a ban on using river water for crops and livestock. “Thousands of acres of farmland could dry up, and hundreds of families could see their primary source of income disappear,” according to New Times, a Phoenix newspaper.
Of course, it’s ironic that the EPA caused this environmental disaster. But I wondered about the implications for a proposed copper-nickel mining project near Hoyt Lakes, in northeastern Minnesota. In numerous columns about PolyMet Mining’s copper-nickel mine (the NorthMet Project), I’ve noted that hard rock mining in the West has a miserable record in terms of polluting groundwater and surface waters. Many mining firms have gone bust and left the public on the hook to clean up the messes they made.
So, does the Gold King Mine disaster foretell what Minnesota might experience with the advent of copper-nickel mining?
“It’s pretty different,” said John Coleman, environmental section leader for the Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC), which provides natural resource management expertise, conservation enforcement and legal and policy analysis to 11 Ojibwe bands in Minnesota,Wisconsin and Michigan.
“That was primarily gold mining,” he added during a recent telephone conversation. “I mean, it’s a lot of the same geochemical processes that generate contaminants; but every mine site is different.”
Regarding the “same geochemical processes,” Coleman points out that PolyMet, with its planned open pit mine, would be “digging into sulfur-containing rock, and that will generate acid and release heavy metals – and there’s a lot of water. So there are a lot of similarities.”
He concludes, as far as the Gold King “containment and remediation effort” that went bad, that PolyMet’s project presents “a different scenario than what you have in Colorado.”
This question was one part of our phone chat; I called Coleman mainly to discuss what’s called the Preliminary Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the NorthMet project. And while waiting to connect with him, the Timberjay, the Iron Range newspaper, put out a story that seems to seriously undermine one crucial aspect of the EIS.
The issue is loaded with hard to understand technical terminology; but, basically, the environmental review process – a collaboration among the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – botched the model for determining water flow through the area of the proposed mine, in the view of GLIFWC’s Coleman.
In a June 18 letter to agency managers responsible for the NorthMet EIS, Coleman wrote: “Since before 2008, GLIFWC staff have consistently raised concerns about the quality and validity of the groundwater modeling at the mine site. Most recently it has come to our attention that the mine site MODFLOW model was incorrectly calibrated and unlikely to provide the hydrologic characterization of the site that is needed in order to perform adequate project impact evaluations.”
The EIS has looked at a flow of water to the south of the project; but Coleman has pointed out that contaminants from the mine likely would run north, into the Peter Mitchell pits, a series of taconite pits that were used by Northshore Mining. The pits are located high on the Laurentian Divide, where water either runs south, toward the Gulf of Mexico, or north, to Hudson Bay.
This area of concern raised by GLIFWC should be addressed in the final EIS, which is due for release in November. “We feel that [the EIS] shouldn’t be released until they get some analysis done on what the impacts might be from contaminants going north toward Birch Lake,” Coleman said, who added, “There are a lot of implications related to things like dewatering and wetlands; but they’ve been very reluctant to look at interaction between this PolyMet project and the adjacent taconite mine.”