In early December, PolyMet Mining
will release its supplemental draft Environmental Impact Statement
(EIS) for its NorthMet copper-nickel project near Hoyt Lakes, Minn.
In October 2009, the first draft EIS was released; and the U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that report inadequate
and sent the Toronto, Canada-based firm back to the drawing board.
Four years later, with the new EIS
set to arrive, the controversy over the environmental risks from
sulfide mining – a new industry in Minnesota – will ramp up. The
mining firm is behind a public relations effort dubbed “Go
PolyMet,” which is aimed at winning public support for the NorthMet
project. This is a “slick, high-production values ad campaign,”
according to Nancy Schuldt, the water protection coordinator for the
Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.
Joe Scipioni, Chief Operation
Officer for PolyMet, told the Laurentian Chamber of Commerce luncheon
in mid-November that his company, “hopes to have support from
business leaders” during the public comment period on the new EIS,
according to a report on WDIO TV in Duluth.
I’ve spoken with Schuldt a number
of times over recent years about the band’s concerns that sulfates
and heavy metal pollution from sulfide mining waste will contaminate
rivers, streams and groundwater – and damage wild rice bands.
The Fond du Lac Band, along with the
Bois Forte and Grand Portage bands, is designated as a “cooperating
agency” in the environmental review process for the NorthMet
copper-nickel mine. The three Ojibwe bands retain hunting, fishing
and gathering rights in the 1854 Treaty ceded territory. They have a
cultural interest in preserving their subsistence rights, which has
been affirmed in federal court decisions.
However, pollution from sulfide
mining poses a threat to the band’s subsistence economy. In short,
the history of hard rock mining in the western states is a catalogue
of environmental disasters. For example, I wrote in my May column
about the catastrophic pollution from cyanide heap-leach mining to
extract gold from Montana’s Little Rocky Mountains. So while the
PolyMet and its backers tout their concern for the environment –
and dangle a bonanza of jobs and economic stimulus from the proposed
copper-nickel mine – environmentalists and those involved with the
tourism economy in Minnesota’s Arrowhead region are warning about
the downside from a boom-and-bust mining economy.
If the bottom drops out of the
global copper-nickel and precious metals market, and PolyMet goes
bankrupt, who’s going to clean up their mess?
This last concern prompted Minnesota
State Auditor Rebecca Otto to break ranks with her colleagues on the
Minnesota Executive Council – the governor, lieutenant governor,
secretary of state and attorney general – and vote against
approving 31 nonferrous mineral leases in northeastern Minnesota, in
the geological area known as the Duluth Complex.
“Minnesota law requires mining
companies to provide financial assurances,” wrote Otto, in a
commentary for the Star Tribune in November. “A financial assurance
is a damage deposit provided by the mining company before mining
begins to ensure that cleanup and reclamation can be done after the
mine closes. Financial assurances, if sufficient, protect taxpayers
from having to foot the bill for cleanup costs.”
However, Otto noted that cleaning up
the pollution from “nonferrous mines is costly and difficult to
predict. State regulators estimate that the PolyMet Mining site in
northern Minnesota, for example, will require water treatment for up
to 500 years. How do we calculate such financial risk 500 years into
Nancy Schuldt lauded Otto for taking
this opportunity to warn Minnesotans that they could be on the hook
for significant costs, if mineral leases led to actual mining and
then things went south, as they say. Otto let it be known that she
“was well aware of the abysmal track record of hard rock mining,”
commented Schuldt. And in her official role as overseer of the
state’s finances, Otto questioned whether “financial assurance
was adequately addressed at this point, or whether we even, in
Minnesota, have sufficiently protective financial assurance
regulations to protect the public. And I thought that was a pretty
bold statement. I very much appreciate her honesty about it. I’m
sure the [mining] industry’s not happy.”
As I’ve commented before, the
mainstream news media in the Twin Cities have largely neglected to
put the copper-nickel mining controversy before the public. It’s a
big deal in Duluth and around the Iron Range. The copper-nickel
mining juggernaut poses a great environmental risk to northern
Minnesota; and when the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources
(DNR) posts the supplemental draft EIS on its Web site Dec. 6, we
likely will see a full-throated debate ensue about sulfide mining.