By Mordecai Specktor

The politics of mining

After straddling the fence for years on the introduction of copper-nickel mining to northeastern Minnesota, Gov. Mark Dayton came down on the side of PolyMet’s open pit mine and processing project on the Iron Range.

In late October, Dayton told St. Paul Pioneer Press reporter Rachel Stassen-Berger, regarding the PolyMet proposal: “Nothing of that magnitude is risk free but I think it’s a risk worth taking and I support the project. But they still have to meet the environmental permitting requirements.”

Regarding the latter comment, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) still has to grant permits related to air and water quality before PolyMet can start digging. The permit-ting process also allows for review by American Indian bands and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and for public comment.

And Dayton told the Pioneer Press that he remains opposed to another sulfide mining project, the Twin Metals Minnesota mine near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. According to Dayton, the PolyMet mining project “is very different from Twin Metals. It’s a very different watershed.”

Over the past dozen or so years, I’ve written numerous columns about copper-nickel mining, relating tribal concerns about pollution from mine tailings wastewater and the general degradation of the natural environment. Several Minnesota Ojibwe bands retain hunting, fishing and gathering rights in the territories ceded in 19th century treaties with the U.S. government. There is an unresolved dispute over Minnesota’s standard for sulfate in wild rice waters, and sulfide mining threatens to make matters worse.

The temperature of the long-running controversy over the debut of sulfide mining – a different animal from the historic iron and taconite mining in the Arrowhead region – heated up in October, with a New York Times Sunday Magazine story titled “In Minnesota Two Economies Square Off: Mining vs. Wilderness.”

The story quoted Reid Carron, a prominent lawyer and environmentalist in Ely: “Resentment is the primary driver of the pro-mining crowd here –they are resentful that other people have come here and been successful while they were sitting around waiting for a big mining company. They want some-body to just give them a job so they can all drink beer with their buddies and go four-wheeling and snowmobiling with their buddies, not have to think about anything except punching a clock.”

Of course, Carron’s comments were denounced by the pro-mining proponents – and also by Minnesota environmental groups that wanted no part in vilifying the locals Up North.

Steve Morse, a former DFL state senator from Winona County, and now the executive director of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, an umbrella organization of 60-some Minnesota environmental groups, told me that Carron’s remarks threw “fuel on the fire of the polarization… it’s really raised the tensions.”

Asked about the timing of Dayton’s public declaration of support for PolyMet, Morse commented that the governor’s statement follows on the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) approving the mining firm’s final environmental impact statement, which brings the permitting process “into its final stages. We may be seeing the permit to mine, which is really the core permit for this operation, at any time. It could be before the end of the year.”

As for Dayton making a distinction between the PolyMet mining scheme and the proposed Twin Metals Minnesota project, Morse said, “We really differ with him on that.”

The PolyMet project involves reusing “some pretty old mining infrastructure,” Morse said, during a telephone interview. “It’s an open-pit mine and they’re going to be putting the tailing, highly toxic materials, into this tailing basin that’s 50 years old, that doesn’t meet the type of standards you’d use if you built a new one… it doesn’t have a lining on the bottom, it leaks out of the bottom.”

The PolyMet mine will have a 20-year span of operation, according to the company’s website, and wastewater “will continue to be treated at the site for as long as necessary, and that which is dis-charged will meet Minnesota’s wild rice standards for sulfate.”

Again, the MPCA is in the process of revising the sulfate standard for wild rice waters; so nobody really knows how the issue will be resolved.

Morse pointed out that mine tailing basins have failed catastrophically, leading to pollution of rivers and streams (Google: “Mount Polley mine disaster”).

In the case of PolyMet, Morse said a “catastrophic failure” of the tailing basin, spilling toxic wastewater into the St. Louis River, could “destroy communities” downstream… “not the least of which is the Fond du Lac reservation.”

Stopping the Twin Metals mine and preserving the Boundary Waters is a worthy goal; but the PolyMet copper-nickel mine poses a serious threat to Minnesota’s water.