Sportsmen: Sulfide Mining is Not the Answer

Grand Rapids Herald-Review: Opinion

By David Lien Minnesota Backcountry Hunters & Anglers | Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Mining proponents are fond of saying that sulfide mining is a potential panacea for Minnesota’s economy and the answer to all that ails northern Minnesota, but then fail to include any verifiable facts backing their claim that environmentally sound sulfide mining is possible. Of course, such facts are hard (impossible, actually) to come by, so it’s not surprising that they don’t bother.

The fact is, in January 2012, the Environmental Protection Agency released its annual Toxic Release Inventory. Once again, metal mining was at the top of the list of polluters across the country. Such mining was responsible for 41 percent of all pollution in our country last year. So, when sulfide mining proponents tell us about their modern technology that will allow mining for copper and nickel without causing pollution, just look at the track record. Look at the facts; everything else is wishful thinking; smoke and mirrors.

America’s public lands—and the fish and wildlife that call them home—are struggling from the effects of a century of hardrock mining. In 2004, the federal government estimated that it would cost taxpayers $7.8 billion to clean up 63 of the mining operations designated as Superfund sites by the Environmental Protection Agency; cleaning up all abandoned hard-rock mines would cost between $20 billion and $54 billion.

Sulfide-mining proponents 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 that acid mine drainage will occur at their proposed Hoyt Lakes mine. Their draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) said: “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 expected mine closure), contaminating the adjacent Partridge River with sulfates and heavy metals;” “Groundwater at the mine site is expected to exceed water quality standards;” “Due to structural instability, the tailings basin has a “low margin of safety.”

All the potential mine sites near Ely drain into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. 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 (EPA) gave the PolyMet sulfide mining proposal a failing grade, a ranking of “Environmentally Unsatisfactory - Inadequate.” This is a ranking the EPA gives less than one percent of the time to projects like this.[8] More specifically, the EPA said:

Mining proponents also talk about the jobs that will be created, but don’t take into consideration how many jobs will be lost. In Minnesota, the fishing industry alone supports 50,000 jobs and recreational fishing brings in $3 billion a year, which would be in jeopardy when acid rock drainage leaches into creeks, streams, rivers and watersheds, eventually ending up in Lake Superior.

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area draws 250,000 visitors a year from around the world. This, in turn, fuels a $1.6 billion tourism economy. Tourism is no get rich quick scheme, but it’s dependable, unlike the boom and bust of mining, which guarantees an economy that lurches from crisis to crisis. In addition, as everyone knows, Minnesota is home to well over 10,000 lakes and countless streams, rivers, and wetlands. In terms of environmental risk, you could easily argue this is one of the worst places on the planet for a sulfide mine.

Mining has historically always been a boom and bust industry. In the last 20 years, 16 hard rock mines declared bankruptcy. This devastates local economies dependent on the mining industry and forces taxpayers to cover the enormous cost of cleanup and restoration. The jobs that mining companies offer will not bring prosperity. If mining companies’ promises were true, northern Minnesota would be the wealthiest part of the country after some 130 years of iron ore mining in the region.

Don’t sulfide mining proponents know about northern Minnesota’s other (far more) valuable asset—the $700 million tourism industry, which depends on pristine woods and lakes. Don’t they know tourism is Minnesota’s fifth-largest industry, generating $11 billion in annual sales and providing nearly 11 percent of total private-sector employment. Minnesota’s nearly 600,000 hunters alone spend over $482 million dollars each year, and the ripple effect to Minnesota’s economy is over $1.47 billion.

The very lifeblood of northern Minnesota’s economy is its healthy watersheds and waterways, but PolyMet’s proposed mine waste will be leaching 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 who are going to leave us with a legacy of 2,000 years of poisoned lakes, streams, and rivers.

Statewide polling shows that 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 they begin operation. Mining proponents think PolyMet is very responsible. If they’re so responsible, PolyMet won’t mind putting up millions of dollars, just in case they pollute and go bankrupt, and try to stick us with the clean-up bill.

These short-sighted mining proposals amount to gambling with the future of our Great Outdoors, and Minnesota’s nearly 2 million hunters and anglers—and the bait shops, resorts, guides, and hotels that depend on their business—shouldn’t stand for it. There’s one question I’d like to ask sulfide mining proponents: Is twenty years of a couple hundred 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?

David Lien, formerly of Grand Rapids, is a Minnesota Deer Hunters Association life member and co-chairman of the Minnesota Backcountry Hunters & Anglers (

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