Minnesota BHA Op-Ed: Sulfide Mining Bad For Watersheds and Local Economies

BWCAThe following is an Op-Ed that was originally published in the Grand Rapids Herald-Review on 5/13/14.

In 1909 President Theodore Roosevelt established the Superior National Forest, which today encompasses some 3 million acres including 445,000 acres of surface water.[1] In total, Minnesota claims 10,000—some even say 14,000—lakes. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports that anglers spent $2.4 billion in Minnesota in 2011 supporting 35,000 state jobs.[2] Water, wetlands, rivers, lakes and streams are nearly synonymous with our state, particularly in northeastern Minnesota. What a special inheritance!

In the words of Minnesota DNR Commissioner, Tom Landwehr: “The canoe paddle in your hands dips into glassy water near Ely. A loon call breaks the quiet. Seeing the sunrise through aspen trees, your canoe loaded with fishing and camping gear, you realize … We are blessed in Minnesota to have an abundance of natural resources. Minnesotans love them as do our visitors. So do our children when we explore our state with family, and so do anglers.”[3]

But some among us are intent on squandering this inheritance. Foreign-owned sulfide mining conglomerates, like PolyMet, are proposing northeastern Minnesota copper and nickel mines, which extract metals from sulfide ore. Healthy fisheries, wildlife, world-class recreation and watersheds that provide clean drinking water are in jeopardy as a result.

Hunters and anglers and other wildlife advocates are particularly concerned about the impacts of sulfide mining. Groups like Trout Unlimited, the Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, and the Audubon Society have weighed in, sounding the alarm regarding the unavoidable impacts of sulfide mining, echoing what the Minnesota DNR Division of Fish and Wildlife said: “This increase in risk to water quality and fish habitat is a significant impact of the project.”[4]

That’s because when sulfides interact with oxygen (in our air) and water (in rain or snowmelt, for example), they create sulfuric acid—the same caustic substance used in car batteries. And sulfide mining in water-intensive areas has never been done without contaminating waterways and watersheds. Although mining companies say “reverse osmosis” technology will fix the problem, this technology has been around for decades. Reverse osmosis cannot even solve water pollution at Minnesota’s taconite mines.[5]

Sulfide mines have a long history of environmental contamination and have polluted an estimated 10,000 miles of our nation’s streams and rivers with acidic runoff. Sulfide mines in the United States, almost without exception, have left a legacy of toxic pollution behind.[6] That legacy is costing taxpayers billions in cleanup costs.[7] The EPA estimates that the cost of cleaning up all sulfide mining facilities is between $20 and $54 billion.[8]

And the proposed PolyMet sulfide mine received some bad news from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently. During March the EPA issued an “Environmental Concerns-Insufficient Information (EC-2)” rating for the supplemental draft environmental impact statement dealing with the company’s NorthMet project. The “Environmental Concerns” part is self-explanatory, and the “2” says the EIS does “not contain sufficient information for EPA to fully assess environmental impacts.”[9]

However, we already know what the economic impacts will be. Eveleth is the size of Ely, and has Thunderbird mine within the boundaries of the city. The last year the state of Minnesota reported gross sales revenues, Eveleth was $41 million a year. Ely is $106 million a year. Eveleth relies on mining. Ely hasn’t had a mine since 1967. Ely’s economy, which is based fundamentally on the wilderness and a healthy national forest, would be displaced and replaced with what Eveleth has. Yes, sulfide mining would be bad for our economy.[10]

A Clean Water Act provision allows the EPA to “prohibit, restrict, deny, or withdraw” an area at risk of “unacceptable adverse effects” on water, fisheries, wildlife or recreation resources. The agency has used this process 13 times in recent decades, most recently in Alaska’s Bristol Bay to protect the bay’s salmon fishery, abundant wildlife populations, and Native communities from sulfide mining.[11]

The agency may be on track to make the same decision regarding proposed sulfide mines in northern Minnesota—20 years of sulfide mining jobs isn’t worth 2,000 years of poisoned waterways and watersheds that will cost the rest of us millions, and possibly billions, to clean up[12] Minnesota DNR Commissioner, Tom Landwehr, knows what’s at stake.

“Only in Minnesota do we have such a winning combination of lakes and rivers, public accesses, and fish species that make for an overwhelming abundance of quality fishing experiences … Only in Minnesota can you put in a canoe and continue that trip from Ely, paddling the Voyageurs’ canoe route through the border waters wilderness, and land at Grand Portage looking out to the largest freshwater lake in the world.”[13]

Conservation derives from the Latin conservare, meaning “to keep guard,” something Teddy Roosevelt did admirably. Today we have the opportunity to honor his legacy by protecting northern Minnesota’s Superior National Forest and other public lands and waterways from the watershed-ruining ravages of sulfide mining. Join us in defending Theodore Roosevelt’s legacy for future generations of hunters, anglers, and other outdoorsmen and women!

See Sportsmen United for Sensible Mining (www.sensiblemining.org), WaterLegacy (www.waterlegacy.org), and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP) (www.trcp.org/issues/mining) for additional information.

David Lien, of Colorado Springs, Colo., formerly of Grand Rapids, Minn., is co-chair of the Minnesota Backcountry Hunters & Anglers (www.backcountryhunters.org), and author of Age-Old Quests II: Hunting, Climbing & Trekking: http://outskirtspress.com/AgeOldQuestsII/.

Want to help MN Backcountry Hunters & Anglers maintain the Upper-Midwest's wildest most productive fisheries?  Become a supporting member of BHA here.

[1] Patrick Durkin. “Classic Country: the Great Lakes.” American Hunter: September 2009, p. 79.

[2] Rob Drieslein. “Outdoor Insights.” Outdoor News: 5/3/13, p. 3.

[3] Tom Landwehr, Minn. DNR Commissioner. “Get outdoors and experience what only Minnesota offers.” Grand Rapids, Minn., Herald-Review: 5/6/14.

[4] John Myers. “PolyMet study: Water from mine site would need 500 years of treatment.” Duluth News Tribune: 10/5/13.

[5] C.A. Arneson. “Why proposed solutions to sulfide-mining pollution won’t work.” Minnpost.com: 1/22/14.

[6] Conservation Minnesota, et al. “Frequently Asked Questions about Sulfide Mining in Minnesota.” Conservation Minnesota: May 2012.

[7] Josephine MarCotty. “Public review of Minnesota’s first proposed copper mine delayed.” Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune: 8/23/13.

[8] Conservation Minnesota, et al. “Frequently Asked Questions about Sulfide Mining in Minnesota.” Conservation Minnesota: May 2012.

[9] Bill Hanna. “Good news for PolyMet.” Mesabi Daily News: 3/14/14.

[10] Ron Meador. “Economist say rosy mining forecasts should count costs and lost jobs, too.” MinnPost.com: 2/21/14.

[11] The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “EPA Takes First Step Toward Banning the Pebble Mine.” Nature’s Voice: Spring 2014, p. 1.

[12] Erik Jensen. “On mining precious metals: Jobs not worth 2,000 years of pollution.” Duluth News Tribune: 10/20/11.

[13] Tom Landwehr, Minn. DNR Commissioner. “Get outdoors and experience what only Minnesota offers.” Grand Rapids, Minn., Herald-Review: 5/6/14.

About Caitlin Thompson