Political Matters: Go PolyMet?

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Go PolyMet?

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

the future?”

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.