Political Matters: Go PolyMet?
Wednesday, December 04 2013
Written by Mordecai Spektor,
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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.

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