Solution Proposal B E

A Simple Solution to Sulfide Mining

Northeastern Minnesota is presently being explored by numerous mining companies proposing sulfide mining in the region. Sulfide mining is the process of extracting metals from sulfur-bearing rock. In Minnesota, these metals are commonly copper, nickel, cobalt, platinum, palladium, and gold. 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 reality of mining’s miniscule projected impact on the economy of the area makes sulfide mining more of a problem than a benefit. Minnesota’s legislature has had opportunities in the past to protect it’s state from these detrimental processes, but mining companies and pro-mining politicians intercepted. Minnesota’s government needs to involve itself in this issue - or face the wreckage if their beautiful ecosystems are left to fend for themselves.

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 of 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?


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. 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. Acid mine drainage is successful at dissolving heavy metals such as lead, copper, and mercury and allowing them to bleed into surrounding waters.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, “It takes approximately 190 years for contaminants to cycle through the great lakes” (“What Is Sulfide Mining?”). This amount of time would greatly impact water quality for centuries of generations of people all around 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 all of the states history. Sulfates are also known for being harmful to wild rice, which is an important commodity in Minnesota. This loss of wetlands, resources, and the destruction of freshwater will deplete thousands of acres of habitat, thereby harming plants, animals, metal structures, concrete structures, and humans.

amd.jpg Acid mine drainage near the Boundary Waters.

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, “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 mine's 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.

In order to avoid the problems that will be caused if sulfide mining is admitted into Minnesota, the states government must get involved. Wisconsin’s legislature stepped up to protect their natural habitat in 1997, and did so by implementing the “Prove It First” policy (Widner). This policy requires prospecting companies to have operated a mine similar to the one being proposed for at least 10 years without polluting the nearby surface or groundwater. Since this policy passed about 18 years ago, no company has been allowed to sulfide mine in Wisconsin. Other states have also taken arms against this issue. One of these states is Michigan, which established a law that states “mines may not be operated in a way such that they will require ‘perpetual care’” (“Sulfide Mining”). Wisconsin and Michigan’s governments took their state’s land into their own hands, and it has saved their regions from almost certain damage. In Minnesota in 2009, Friends of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness supported Representative Alice Hausman and Senator Jim Carlson as they proposed a bill that would have protected Minnesota’s wilderness from harmful mining habits. According to the Friends, the bill would have established three important things: ‘Prohibit mines that would require water treatment after closure, ensure mining companies put up enough money to pay for cleanup in the case they go bankrupt or otherwise abandon the mine, and it would have increased government transparency so citizens would be informed of how mines are regulated’ (“Sulfide Mining”). This bill would have protected Minnesota’s land from mining companies that would exploit the land and natural resources if allowed to mine. With advertisement and support groups backing this bill, legislation would have to reevaluate and consider it. Legislature may have blocked it once, but with more thought concerning the environment and support from civilians, this bill is a perfect solution.

If this bill were to be passed, Minnesota’s natural resources would be protected. Ground and surface water, - which are both abundant in the state - would be preserved. Two of the largest tributaries that feed into the Great Lakes are in PolyMet’s proposed mining area. They will not harm the 18% of the worlds freshwater stored in the Great Lakes if this bill is passed. Over 1,000 acres of wetlands PolyMet is proposing to drain will be saved. All of this water being guarded from sulfide ore will continue to be natural habitats for many organisms, including humans. It can continue to be used for growing wild rice and other irrigation. Fish and other animals will not be devastated by the increased amounts of methyl-mercury that would be deposited if the mines were allowed. Passing this bill will protect humans from the increased methyl-mercury also, which could decrease the amount of birth defects and other medical conditions associated with methyl-mercury. Passing this bill will help keep Minnesota’s landscape, water, animals, and people safe.

One other solution to this issue is the total suppression of all mining proposed in Minnesota. This solution would further protect the unique environments and water quality in this state, but would be extremely difficult to sell to legislature and the general public. The prospect of jobs and revenue, although limited, and the abundance of minerals in Minnesota would outweigh the obvious problems caused by mining altogether when introduced to the government. While people are still using mined metals and other resources, such as coal and oil, there is no possible way to eliminate the need or occurrence of some type of mining in Minnesota.

Minnesota can help protect their state from destruction by sulfide mining with the implementation of a simple bill. This bill will educate citizens as to how mines are operated, protect ground and surface water around a proposed site, and ensure proper cleanup actions are taken in the case of an accident. Sulfide mining poses just a few jobs with a heap environmental impacts, making it inconclusive to take on. This bill would be easy to propose to Minnesota’s legislature and pass, with the right amount of support and advertisement. It would succeed at protecting Minnesota’s land, water, and inhabitants without limiting economic growth for the state. Minnesota can save it's state from this invasive and intensive form of mining with this simple solution.

Works Cited Solution Proposal B.E.

Solutions Peer Review B.E.

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