Staff Editorial – A World Debate in Minnesota: Mining and the Environment

NOTE: The following article won 3rd place in a contest put on by Young Reporters for the Environment.

It might seem as though the controversy over proposed sulfide mining plans in the Northeastern region of Minnesota doesn’t directly affect high school students. But in reality, this is the generation that will be feeling the effects of any decisions made, so it is crucial that we are involved in this process.

Recently, PolyMet, a Canadian corporation hoping to begin mining in 2016, released the Environmental Impact Statement of the proposed mine. The environmental review has received over 40,000 comments on a public comment thread. For those in support, the resulting economic growth and job creation are incomparable, while those opposed raise concerns about the environmental impact.

Sulfide mining, also known as hard rock mining, is the extraction of minerals like Minnesota’s vast reserves of copper, nickel, cobalt, and platinum from sulfide ore. Polymet workers estimate that the Duluth Complex in Northeastern Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range has 4.4 billion tons of minerals. The plan projected by PolyMet is to reuse existing infrastructure from Erie Plant, a 1957 taconite processing facility.

The proposed mine is in an ideal location of economic need. As stated by Ely resort owner Joe Baltich at a public hearing of the Polymet proposal, “I’m in the tourism industry, and I certainly don’t want to shoot myself in the foot. But we’re losing businesses right and left. We have 360 properties that are for sale, and no one is buying… We’re going to lose our schools, our grocery store. We’re going to lose everything, and it’s my hometown.” Baltich, and many others, support the mining project because they believe it could mean increased jobs and a revitalized Minnesotan economy. PolyMet estimates that mining could generate 360 jobs, and hundreds for construction workers, for 20 years. The University of Minnesota-Duluth calculated the mining would produce over 550 million dollars per year, clearly an economic stimulant.

Proponents of Minnesotan sulfide mining also emphasize the positives in obtaining metals locally, reflecting a problem that the United States as a whole faces: dependence on foreign minerals. Mining nationally has been promoted to reduce international dependence, and allow us to more closely monitor conditions for miners and for the environment where the metals are extracted, which are often unsafe due to few regulations. This Minnesotan mine could be a step away from foreign dependence and towards a self sufficient America.

But it isn’t this simple. The Great Lakes contain 18% of the world’s fresh water, and mining could be a threat to this valuable resource. 99% of the rock that is unearthed is waste rock or sulfides. When the sulfides are exposed to air and water, the waste could be subject to acid mine drainage, which would create sulfuric acid. This acid could be a potential pollutant for water, as well as for wildlife and fish. Water is difficult to contain and to treat, and the interconnected water systems in Minnesota are a concern if any pollution were to occur. Minnesota isn’t the only state that has undergone mining turmoil. “Other states have suffered because their leaders saw dollar signs when they should have seen question marks. Leaders believed promises that the mines wouldn’t pollute, but ignored all the times those promises had been broken,” stated Friends of the BWCA Executive Director Paul Danicic, in a Minneapolis Star Tribune editorial, referring to pollution in Colorado, Montana, and South Dakota mines. According to the project Mining Truth, there has not been a single sulfide mine that has not polluted.

Furthermore, environmentalists claim the PolyMet plan is riddled with gaping holes. The water treatment after the project could last for 500 years or longer in cases of high levels of pollution. Scott Helgeson of Bloomington spoke at a public hearing on January 28, stating, “What prevents [PolyMet] from going bankrupt 30 years from now and saying, guys, we just can’t pay the bills anymore. Are we insane?” Helgeson’s concerns echo those of taxpayers across the state. The cost of cleanup after the mining is complete could thrust Minnesotans into an economic deficit. For some, the risk of a costly cleanup outweighs the prospect of economic thriving for twenty years.

Of course, the economic gain could be very substantial, but here’s the question Minnesotans are asking: is any amount of money worth putting natural beauty at risk? The solution isn’t clear cut. Minnesota is undisputably host to a plethora of natural minerals, something Minnesotans should be able to harness to economic advantage. However, we need to know how to do this correctly, without environmental harm as a stipulation. Mining could leave Minnesota’s next generation–our generation– in an economic deficit. So we need to be involved. Aaron Klemz, communications director for Friends of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, in a personal interview March 10, stated,

“When regulators know that tens of thousands, and hundreds of thousands of people are watching their decision-making process, they make better decisions, because they have to actually know that they will be held accountable for what’s happening. Part of it is about being involved in the process, and part of it too is making sure the DNR understands that Minnesotans want to preserve our water for the next generation, because it is probably our greatest natural resource.”

The Minnesotan debate is bringing to the surface decades of dispute that pit mining against the health of the environment. Japan, Spain, Peru, and Indonesia are only a few examples of the many countries dealing with mining pollution. Our world depends on minerals to make products, and countries need the money from this international trade. Together, we are going to have to work to find a balance to eventually obtain them in a safe manner, or risk trashing our environment.

Minnesota is going to be a leader, but whether for a successful or destructive sulfide mining project or an environmental victory, is a choice that Minnesotans are going to have to make.

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(Boundary Waters photos courtesy of Karl Boothman)