Duty to Warn: Northern Minnesota and the PolyMet Project


PolyMet’s Tailings “Pond” could someday create a dead St. Louis River and a dying Lake Superior. Is that an acceptable risk to take?

In the December 23rd edition of the Duluth News-Tribune, a staff writer, using the byline of “News Tribune”, wrote a Local News article with the title “EPA signals its support for final PolyMet review”. The article ended with this (intentionally?) deceptive and woefully insufficient sentence, “Critics say the project is likely to taint downstream waters with acidic runoff”.

I will attempt to correct the notion that “acidic runoff” is the major reason for the widespread opposition to PolyMet’s proposed copper/nickel mining project (which is adjacent to the pristine Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness). PolyMet, it should be mentioned, is a total novice when it comes to operating copper/nickel mines.

On August 4, 2014, a mine at Mount Polley, British Columbia had its huge tailings pond dam (an earthen dam) suddenly burst, massively polluting downstream streams, rivers and lakes, not to mention aquifers which had already been polluted during the years before the catastrophe. The millions of tons of toxic sludge flooded into the migratory Sockeye salmon-bearing Fraser River, the 800 mile-long British Columbian river which empties into the Georgia Strait and the Pacific Ocean at the city of Vancouver.

Typical of most government and industry responses to such catastrophic mining industry failures, the Conservative Harper government of Canada – not to mention the ruling Liberal government of British Columbia – tried to cover up the disaster. Hence, most North Americans on either side of the border (certainly us Minnesotans) were not made aware of the catastrophic event.

Imperial Metals Corporation of Vancouver, the owner of the mine, admitted that they had been dumping the following toxic metals into the slurry (aka “slime”) pond in the years leading up to the failure of the earthen dam. The agency reported that the metallic contaminants that had been dumped in the tailings pond included: Lead, Arsenic, Nickel, Zinc, Cadmium, Vanadium, Antimony, Manganese and Mercury.

Any one of these 9 heavy metal contaminants are highly poisonous and have no safe levels in drinking water or in the serum or tissues of human or animal bodies. These contaminants, commonly found in hard rock mines, are also lethal to plant life, but only when they are ground up into fine powder form in the mineral extraction process.

It is important to recall that polluted aquifers can never be de-toxified by any known process.

If they don’t breach and spill massive amounts of toxic sludge into the environment like at Mount Polley, they leach that contamination slowly, poisoning the waters and lands around them.

The Hazeltine Creek, that enters into Quesnel Lake was the deepest, purest lake in British Columbia and a famous trout and salmon fishery, until August 5, 2014, when 24,000,000 cubic meters of toxic water and sludge breached the Mt Polley tailings dam and virtually exploded downsteam.

Millions of floating dead trees were swept away in the massive sludge flood. The only useful thing that the Imperial Mining Company could do in the immediate aftermath was to try to break up the floating logs so that they wouldn’t destroy downstream bridges as the poisoned water flowed into the Quesnel River (which ultimately empties into the Fraser River and then into the Pacific Ocean at Vancouver, B. C.).

In November 2015, the heavily contaminated sludge from Brazil’s worst environmental disaster at the Samarco iron mine, destroyed mining and non-mining communities that were situated downstream. The massive volume of toxic sludge entered the Rio Doce river in a sudden, thunderous flood (ironically, “doce” means “sweet” in Spanish). The toxic slime polluted and killed everything in its way as it flowed toward the Atlantic Ocean, a distance of 300 miles.

The guilty mining company perpetrators were as helpless in dealing with the aftermath as were the human, animal and aquatic victims. Samarco, incidentally, is co-owned and operated by the mining giants, Vale (Brazilian) and the largest mining company in the world, BHP Billiton (British-Australian).

Northern Minnesotans, Native Americans, sportsmen, environmentalists, wild rice harvesters, and working folks who need non-toxic water to survive must understand that such a catastrophe could destroy the aquifers in the BWCAW, Birch Lake, the Partridge River, the Embarrass River, the St. Louis River, the city of Duluth and ultimately, Lake Superior.

Any human with an ounce of morality would conclude that the risks of allowing PolyMet (or even a veteran company like PolyMet’s major investor, Glencore) to operate an open pit sulfide mine in the pristine areas of northern Minnesota are just too great. States that surround Lake Superior and the other great lakes downstream should have a say in the issue as well. The problem seems to be that amoral multinational corporations can’t be expected to act as one would expect ethical humans to act, especially when profits are involved.

Videos of the Mount Polley tailings pond failure can be viewed at: https://youtu.be/xAItFxc8bME, and  https://youtu.be/vg3yd8GPSnA.

Dr Kohls is a retired physician from Duluth, MN. He writes a weekly column for the Reader, Duluth’s alternative newsweekly magazine.