Clean Arguing Cause B.E.

Northeastern Minnesota is presently being explored by numerous mining companies who are proposing sulfide mining in the region. Sulfide mining is the extraction of metals from sulfur-bearing rock. In Minnesota, these metals are commonly copper, nickel, cobalt, platinum, palladium, and gold. When the mining company extracts these metals, they leave behind sulfide ore, or waste rock. These tailings are then deposited in some type of impoundment or pile and left there to sit. Currently, advances in technology and high demand for these metals has made it semi-profitable to mine for Minnesota’s low-grade sulfide ore. While the prospect of new jobs in this region of Minnesota is enticing to some, the inescapable likelihood of extensive environmental damage paired with the unadapted ill-equipped regulations for mining in Minnesota and the reality of mining’s miniscule projected impact on the economy of the area makes sulfide mining more of a problem than a benefit.

PolyMet Mining company is proposing creating a sulfide mine in northeastern Minnesota’s Duluth Complex. The Duluth Complex is “one of the world’s largest known undeveloped deposits of copper, nickel and other precious metals” (“A Modern, Safe Mine”). The Complex ranges from just below the City of Duluth all the way to Hoyt Lakes and then arcs north into Canada near Thunder Bay, Ont. They are calling this enterprise the NorthMet Project and plan for the whole operation, including the processing facilities, infrastructure and the Duluth Complex deposit itself, to take up approximately 16700 acres, or 26 miles. Polymet is proposing to dig three open pits. The West Pit, which is the largest, will occupy close to 320 acres and be about 700 feet deep. This will be trailed closely by the East Pit and the Central Pit, both of which are slightly smaller. Ore extracted from these pits will be transported by rail about 6 miles to reach processing facilities that used to be for taconite. PolyMet estimates the mine to “annually produce 72 million pounds of copper, 15.4 million pounds of nickel, 720,000 pounds of cobalt, and 106,000 troy ounces of precious metals” (“A Modern, Safe Mine”) and, from 2006 to October 31, 2014, more than $219 million has been invested into the NorthMet Project. Most of this money has gone towards wages, consulting fees, engineering, environmental studies, land acquisitions, leases, and other work. According to PolyMet, “Here, mining is woven into everyday life, supporting generations of workers and their families and building the communities in which they live” (“A Modern, Safe Mine”). PolyMet might believe this, but is mining really that important in this community?

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Sulfide mining tailings chemically react with oxygen to produce sulfuric acid. This discharges into ground and surface water near mine sites as acid mine drainage, or AMD. The Partridge River and the Embarrass River run close to the site where PolyMet has proposed its mine and they both flow into the St. Louis river, which is one of the largest tributaries to empty into Lake Superior, and according to WaterLegacy.org, “It takes approximately 190 years for contaminants to cycle through the great lakes” (“What Is Sulfide Mining?”). This would greatly impact water quality all around this region of Minnesota and other states that rely on the great lakes, considering they do hold 18% of the world’s freshwater. On top of this obstacle, “Over 1,000 acres of wetlands are proposed to be drained by the NorthMet Project” (Widner) according to Widner, which turns out to be the largest one-time loss within the states whole history. This loss of wetlands and destruction of freshwater will deplete thousands of acres of habitat, thereby harming plants, animals, metal structures and concrete structures. Acid mine drainage is also successful at dissolving heavy metals such as lead, copper, and mercury and allowing them to bleed into surrounding waters. Sulfates are known for being harmful to wild rice, which is an important commodity in Minnesota. Acid Mine Drainage is extremely difficult to confine and treat properly and water contamination can last centuries - making land inhospitable to agriculture for centuries. AMD can even affect humans. One well-known neurotoxin called methyl-mercury, which is produced by acid mine drainage, has been linked with causing developmental disabilities, brain and nerve damage, and even autism. The Minnesota Department of Health states, “one in ten newborns on the Northshore of Minnesota already have unsafe levels of mercury in their blood” (“Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy Issues Mining Sulfide Mining”). These are side-effects that can cause serious problems for Minnesota and it’s inhabitants.

Although nearly all mines are predicted to not cause environmental damage, most of them actually do. The metal mining industry is one of the leaders in the release of toxins in the world, and acid mine drainage accounts for some of the largest, most problematic, and expensive Superfund sites. David Chambers from the Center for Science in Public Participation states, “The process fails- all mines are predicted to not cause acid mine drainage, but for mines with surface and groundwater nearby that have potentially acid producing waste still 75% of them fail to meet surface and/or groundwater water quality discharge standards” (Widner). When looking for examples of sulfide mines that have not polluted their landscape somehow, there are none. Water Legacy states, “There has never been a metallic sulfide mine that has not polluted water resources where water was present” (“What Is Sulfide Mining?”). PolyMet is insisting that they will not need to obtain permits to replace lost wetlands and forests and for discharge of pollutants into surface waters because the techniques they will be using will not have an affect on the environment. The problem with this statement is - the approach PolyMet is proposing has never been tested and therefore nobody knows if it will actually work. Also, the PolyMet company is young and has never actually operated a mine. The Duluth Complex is a very sensitive area and PolyMet has no way to verify that it will not considerably alter this area by sulfide mining.

Sulfide mining is not being substantially regulated in Minnesota. According to WaterLegacy.org, “inadequacies in the current state of enforcement in mining regulation, including permits exceeding pollution standards, sites operating under variances, unidentified and unassessed toxic grease barrels, decades of [Acid Mine Drainage]…” (“What Is Sulfide Mining?”) are just a few of the problems concerning mining enforcement currently. Minnesota Control Agency itself has claimed it “doesn’t have the funding to adequately implement the laws that assess and protect wetlands and water from the impacts of proposed mining” (“What Is Sulfide Mining?”) and Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources is conflicted with the matter - with interest in protecting Minnesota’s resources and interest in exploiting them. This lack of enforcement, missing pieces to current enforcements, and confusion within Minnesota is a large contributor to the negative impact sulfide mining could have in this state. Without thorough inspection and regulation, Minnesota’s famous lakes and water-bodies could quickly become contaminated with sulfuric acid.

Another factor playing into this problem are countries such as India and China fervently industrializing for the past decade. This has lead to demands for base metals, like the ones available in the Duluth Complex, to skyrocket. This increased demand has been met with technological advances in the mining industry that have made extracting metals less expensive. These two factors mean that, according to the Friends of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, “…for the first time ever, our state’s low-grade sulfide ore could be mined profitably” (“Sulfide Mining”).

PolyMet Mining company and supporters of the proposed mine urge that the NorthMet Project “will generate significant economic benefits…” ("Will Sulfide Mines Bring Employment and Economic Benefits to Northern Minnesota?") for the economy of northeastern Minnesota. PolyMet claim that the mine will employ around 360 full-time jobs for citizens and produce an estimated $515 million in wages, benefits, and spending for the St. Louis County. These types jobs are among some of the highest paid blue-collar jobs and skilled jobs available in the nation. Although this seems like a good influx in employment, the mines Draft Environmental Impact Statement “reveals that 55 percent of those jobs will be “non-local” hires, filled by people relocating to the area. Another 20 percent of the hires will be commuting from distant locations such as Duluth. Only 25 percent, or 90 of the predicted jobs, might come from the local communities” ("Will Sulfide Mines Bring Employment and Economic Benefits to Northern Minnesota?").__ This minuscule amount of jobs created in the region will not create a large effect to the St. Louis economy. While having some jobs available is better than having no jobs available, metal mining jobs and revenue tend to be very erratic due to “booms” and “busts” (Widner) within the industry that lead to economic and community instability. Minnesota has experienced these boom and bust cycles throughout its past, the most recent being the demand for iron in the 1900s, where mini booms and busts took a toll on the economy for decades. These fluctuations are caused by recessions and expansions around the world affecting the price of metals, and as the prices fluctuate, so does employment. According to Thomas Power, “Eighty-three percent of the iron jobs that existed in 1979 had vanished by 2005” (Power). Due to this dramatic decrease, iron mining dependency since 2005 has decreased from 23 percent to 4 percent. If the iron mining industry was so important for the economy of the area, the economies of the St. Louis, Itasca, and Lake Counties would not have shown such significant expansion in medical, health services, and other industries as they have. As the iron ore mining dependency was phased out, the rest of the economy had a chance to expand. Were the NorthMet Project to begin, less than one percent of the total employment of the area would be affected by it. Northeastern Minnesota’s economy has expanded and flourished since the decline in mining from the 1900’s, and the establishment of sulfide mining would not have a significant enough effect on the economy to consider it advantageous.

Although PolyMet and other companies are currently exploring the idea of sulfide mining in Minnesota, their proposals at making it environmentally safe and economically worthwhile hold no ground. Sulfide mining is a practice that is very dangerous to water, wildlife, and even humans. It would be extremely intensive on wildlife habitat and have near-microscopic effect on the economies of northeastern Minnesota. How Minnesota will address these issues will have a direct effect on it’s beautiful landscape and clean lakes. Minnesota’s name is derived from Dakota Sioux Indian words that, when literally translated, mean "sky-tinted water" (“Minnesota Name Origin”) and hopefully this name will stand true for years to come.

Works Cited B.E.

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