On mining precious metals: Jobs not worth 2,000 years of pollution

By: Erik Jensen, Duluth News Tribune , 10-29-2011

A recent News Tribune contributor who supports sulfide mining said, brazenly, “It is time for the dirt to fly.” This writer was referring to two foreign-owned northern Minnesota mining ventures: The largest is the open-pit NorthMet Project by PolyMet Corp. of Canada, with its partner, the Swiss metals company Glencore. The other mine is the underground Nokomis Project, a partnership of Duluth Metals of Canada, Twin Metals Minnesota LLC and Chile’s Antofagasta, the world’s largest copper producer.

Apparently, the writer was unaware that America’s public lands — and the fish and wildlife that call them home — are struggling from the effects of a century of hard-rock mining. In 2004, the federal government estimated it would cost taxpayers $7.8 billion to clean up 63 of the mining operations designated as Superfund sites by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; cleaning up all abandoned hard-rock mines would cost between $20 billion and $54 billion.
This sulfide-mining proponent must not know that mining of sulfide-metal ore has never been accomplished without causing eventual acid-metal leachate pollution of ground and surface waters. As a result, Wisconsin placed a moratorium on sulfide mining operations in 1997 until it could be demonstrated that such a mine would not pollute the water. The moratorium is still in place.
PolyMet officials admit acid mine drainage will occur at their proposed Hoyt Lakes mine. Their Draft Environmental Impact Statement stated: “Water leaching from the waste rock piles is expected to be contaminated for up to 2,000 years. … The West Mine Pit will overflow at Mine Year 65 (45 years after the expected closure of the mine), contaminating the adjacent Partridge River with sulfates and heavy metals. It also stated, “Groundwater at the mine site is expected to exceed water quality standards,” and, “Due to structural instability, the tailings basin has a ‘low margin of safety.’ ”
In addition, all potential mine sites near Ely drain into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, and PolyMet’s would drain to the St. Louis River and its estuary, a primary wildlife incubator for Lake Superior. Adding insult to injury, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency gave the PolyMet sulfide mining proposal a failing grade, a ranking of “Environmentally Unsatisfactory (and) Inadequate.” This is a ranking the EPA gives less than 1 percent of the time to projects like this.
More specifically, the EPA said, “All waste rock at the site is acid generating, and acidic water … will mobilize metals and sulfates, leaching them into groundwater and surface water. … The project will result in unacceptable long-term water quality impacts … increasing mercury loadings into the Lake Superior watershed.” The EPA also said, “The proposed approaches to manage acid generation are untested or unproven at the proposed scale,” and, “This project may have substantial and unacceptable adverse impacts on aquatic resources of national importance … specifically, to the Lake Superior Watershed and the Great Lakes Basin.”
The very lifeblood of northern Minnesota’s economy is its healthy watersheds and waterways, but PolyMet’s proposed mine waste would leach sulfuric acid into those same northern Minnesota waterways “for up to 2,000 years.” American’s hard-earned tax dollars shouldn’t be used to subsidize foreign companies which are going to leave us with a legacy of 2,000 years of poisoned lakes, streams, and rivers.
Statewide polling shows an overwhelming 85 percent of Minnesotans favor requiring mining companies to prove they have the financial means to clean up pollution from their mines before beginning operations.
There’s only one question I’d ask mining proponents: Is 20 years of sulfide mining jobs worth 2,000 years of poisoned waterways and watersheds that will cost the rest of us millions, and possibly billions, to clean up?

Erik Jensen of Minneapolis is vice chairman of Minnesota Backcountry Hunters & Anglers.

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