Political Matters: Sulfide mining debated in St. Paul
Friday, February 07 2014
Written by Mordecai Specktor,
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Sulfide mining debated in St. Paul

Hope Flanagan, of Minneapolis, first spoke in Ojibwe when she addressed the large throng in the St. Paul RiverCentre, at the public meeting on the Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the proposed NorthMet mining project.

“I want to speak for our children,” Flanagan said, shifting to the English language. She explained that Indian prophecies speak of the Seventh Generation, the children of the future who will be affected by the decisions we make today. She added that women have a special role in protecting the natural world. “All you women out there, this is our job … We’ve got to have clean water, clean food. Let’s start thinking about our children.”

More than 2,000 people turned out for the Jan. 28 public comment session on PolyMet Mining’s proposed copper-nickel and precious metals mine near Babbit, in northeastern Minnesota. The crowd in the huge meeting room in downtown St. Paul seemed split between predominantly male union tradesmen, who reportedly were bussed in from the Iron Range and other Minnesota locales and environmentalists who argued that short-term economic gain from introducing sulfide mining Up North is not worth the risk of acid mine drainage polluting surface and ground water.

“The rest of the world is searching for fresh water, and we’re about to throw ours away,” added Flanagan, who represented the anti-mining side.

The pro-mining contingent – including the construction and steel workers in hard hats and neon yellow safety vests – painted a bleak picture of an economically devastated region that needs the economic uplift that copper-nickel mining will provide.

Hoyt Lakes Mayor Mark Skelton said that sulfide mining is a “risk we have to take,” in order to revive his town’s fortunes. He argued that the various state regulatory agencies are looking out for the environment.

Mary Sitko, Minneapolis, one of the 59 speakers at meeting – chosen randomly from a pool of 640 people who wanted to speak – said that she works for Pace Analytical, a company that does testing and consulting for mining clients. Pace is doing well with the PolyMet exploration, she said. “As they continue to grow, we plan to grow, adding jobs to the area,” Sitko commented.

Outside of the main meeting room, 15 informational stations were set up and staffed by the state, federal and cooperating agencies involved in the SDEIS. Literature and charts were available on various topics, from wild rice to the land swap for the mine sited in the Superior National Forest to mercury pollution. The SDEIS was jointly prepared by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Forest Service (the “co-lead agencies”).

I stopped by the “tribal” table and met Nancy Schuldt, the water protection coordinator for the Fond du Lac Band. We have been talking on the phone occasionally, over the past few years, so it was good to finally meet her in person.

Schuldt admitted to being a bit fatigued, after attending the first two public comment meetings in Duluth and Aurora and now the large gathering in St. Paul. As I reported in my December column, the tribal cooperating agencies – Fond du Lac, Bois Forte and Grand Portage – contributed to an appendix to the SDEIS, which included evidence that the baseline data about water flow from the proposed mine were flawed. I showed Schuldt a press release from the DNR, which addresses the “new river flow data” for the PolyMet project. She hadn’t seen this response and didn’t seem impressed by it. The DNR “experts are reviewing new stream flow data for the Partridge River,” according to the press statement. “The river flow data inform the scientific models used to determine potential environmental impacts of the proposed copper-nickel mine … We cannot make a judgment yet on how these additional data might inform a revision of the SDEIS.”

So, there could be some flaws in the 2,169-page environmental review, which might entail “additional work related to base [water] flows” and the possible “implications for the environmental review timetable.”

In other words, the PolyMet copper-nickel project still has a way to go before an operational start-up.

Chris Niskanen, the DNR communications director, told me that, beyond the SDEIS and a final EIS, PolyMet Mining has to get “more than 20 permits … in order to begin this project.” He said that the main document is a “permit to mine,” which will allow them to begin digging out metals.

The Indian bands that retain hunting, fishing and gathering rights in the 1854 Treaty ceded territory are “very concerned” about mining and will continue to watch this process closely, said Schuldt.

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