The Polymet Mining Controversy: Perspectives from two Becketwood Members
The proposal by the Polymet Mining Company to establish a copper sulfide mine in Northern Minnesota has generated a major statewide controversy. Proponents maintain that it will bring much needed jobs to their communities. Opponents raise concerns about the environmental impact of the proposed mine. The following submissions from Becketwood Members Carol Mockovak and Faith Lindell offer perspectives on this important policy issue.
PolyMet -- the Leader of the Pack
Carol Mockovak, Becketwood Member and Co-chair of Environment Committee
Six of us from Becketwood’s Environment Committee attended the packed public hearing on proposed sulfide ore mining on January 28 at the River Center in St. Paul. The evening provided an opportunity for people to voice their opinions on whether or not PolyMet should be permitted to do open pit mining in northern Minnesota.
The hearing went on for hours, each side having about equal time to dispute or promote the project. At the end of the evening, the six of us left shaking our heads. We understand how important jobs are to people in northern Minnesota, but how can we as citizens of this state be seriously considering permitting the pollution of our state’s waters—which would need 500 years of ongoing and expensive water treatment according to PolyMet’s analysis—in exchange for 300 jobs, for only 20 years?
Our Environment Committee has had two programs for our membership on this type of mining—the first with Betsy Daub from Friends of the Boundary Waters, who introduced us to the issue. In October, we hosted Diadra Decker from WaterLegacy, an organization formed to prevent the damage that this type of mining has produced wherever it has operated.
Retired miner Bob Tammen spoke that evening, too. He brought along maps that showed the location of all the former mines in northern Minnesota and the tailings basins that were built to hold the waste. According to Tammen, the basins were actually designed to leak so that they would not create ponding. When more waste material is put into the old basins, they will leak—letting the acid created from the sulfate into ground and surface waters.
Tammen also said that mining is now so highly mechanized that it requires far fewer jobs than in earlier years. This project will not be a long-range economic boom for the northland; mining companies will come in for a few years and then leave. The question is: What will they leave behind?
The answer includes the elimination of 900 acres of quality wetlands, long-term water pollution, massive destruction of the landscape, and leakage of toxic metals like mercury into groundwater. For more detailed information about this damage—plus a photo of what is left after sulfide ore mining, check out the Audubon Society’s website.
Minnesota law requires that a closed mine site be maintenance free. That is not the projected case with PolyMet’s operations. How will Minnesota citizens be protected from having to bear the cost of such long-term water treatment? The current Environmental Impact Statement is not explicit enough about financial assurance details from the company. How will the company guarantee that it will bear the water treatment costs for 500 years after it closes the mine?
Many more issues are involved in this decision. Some of them are the safety of municipal drinking water; protection of wild rice; and the land exchange needed for the mining company to operate in the Superior National Forest, which operation may violate the 1854 Treaty with the Fond du lac, Bois Forte, and Grand Portage Chippewa (Ojibwe) bands.
The open-pit mining will discharge mercury into the water, already a problem in northern Minnesota, and mercury has no safe limit. One in ten infants in the Lake Superior basin is born with mercury contamination, according to the Minnesota Department of Health. Fish consumption advisories for mercury are already a consideration for local people. Why increase that risk?
Mining Truth has just launched a new website that gives detailed information about these risks and others involved with sulfide mining. Check it out at PolyMet Problems.
We in the Environment Committee are urging our friends, family, and members of this cooperative to send in comments urging denial of the operating permit to PolyMet. This company is the first in a long line of mining companies that will seek permits to open this new type of mine in Minnesota if PolyMet gets the go-ahead.
All comments must be submitted by 4:30 PM on March 13, 2014. If you will be mailing in comments, include your full name and a mailing address, and send to:
Lisa Fay, EIS Project Manager
MDNR Division of Ecological and Water Resources
500 Lafayette Road, Box 25
St. Paul, MN 55155-4025
Or: Go to the WaterLegacy site that makes commenting easy.
A final thought about jobs. We on our committee certainly understand how important it is for families to have good and stable jobs.
The argument is made that we need copper in our electronic devices—computers, laptops, tablets, cell phones, etc. At the public meeting in St. Paul, one of the mining advocates brought out a large bag and invited people who didn’t want this type of mining to throw in their devices.
But here’s a really interesting idea that Don Arnosti of the Audubon Society has suggested. Let's acknowledge the need for both copper and jobs by opening a recycling center for all these devices up on the Range. Right now, with the release of every new device, one is thrown away. What happens to all these discarded materials? Some recycling centers actually send the recovered materials abroad.
Arnosti told me that copper and nickel are infinitely recyclable. Why not keep using them for the products we need? In terms of volume of ore mined, only 1 percent is copper or nickel. In one ton of ore, there are 1,980 pounds of waste.
I think Arnosti’s idea is a win-win. Let’s provide good, long-lasting jobs that will help the people up on the Range, provide materials for the myriad devices our society is becoming more and more hooked on, and protect our beautiful environment and precious resources for our children, our grandchildren, and seven generations into the future.
Please submit your comments by March 13.
For easy e-mail submission, visit the WaterLegacy site.
Rio Tinto River photo courtesy of NASA Ames Research Center
Clean water photo by Dale Stuepfert
The Cost of Copper: Site Visits in Indonesia and Washington State
Faith Lindell, Becketwood Member
In recent weeks hearings have been held regarding the building of a mine or mines in northern Minnesota by PolyMet Minerals Corporation and other companies. At the January 28, 2014 meeting in St Paul, people seemed to be divided about evenly between those seeking jobs and those concerned about water contamination and other environmental damage around the mine site. The Becketwood Environment Committee has been monitoring news about this proposal as well as attending public meetings and writing letters.
My husband and I visited the Freeport Mine in Indonesia in November 1999. At that time, it was reported to be the largest gold mine and third largest copper and silver mine in the world. Since the site was in a remote area and tourists were not welcome, the experience was both rare and disquieting.
Our daughter Laura and husband Jim Dontje were teaching in Indonesia. A colleague at Cenderawasih University was doing community development work that Freeport Corporation had funded and the colleague arranged for Jim and Laura to see the mine. Jim told him that he would be on vacation but if they would allow his in-laws and his three children to accompany them they could make the trip.
In the late afternoon we arrived at the airport and were met by a bus about the size of the Becketwood bus. We started the tortuous drive of about 70 miles up a steep mountain. It was soon dark—fortunately, because the drop-offs on either side of the road were a bit daunting. The village at which we arrived seemed to have all the amenities of a village anywhere—school, church, clinic, commissary. We stayed in an employee’s vacant, furnished, three-bedroom home and ate in the employees’ cafeteria.
The next morning our three grandchildren, ages 6, 3, and 2 were whisked away to an all-day child-care facility. We four adults traveled via a steep aerial tramway to 12,000 feet elevation and then by Land Cruiser through the clouds to the open pit mine at 14,000 feet. We drove among the huge ore trucks. At an overlook, it was an awesome sight—a crater a mile wide at the surface. The huge trucks and other equipment were tiny blips below, actively hauling and extracting the ore. At the landing where we took the tramway we saw machines used for processing the ore.
Carl Lindell at Freeport – November 1999
The next day we were taken back down the mountain to the coast, where the tailings from the mine activity were washing down the Ajkwa River and into the ocean. The company says that their system of levees at this lowland level is designed to capture the tailings before they are released into the ocean. A report (endorsed by Freeport) estimates that during the life of the mine 3.2 billion tons of waste rock will be dumped into the local river system. At present at the mouth of the river, the tailings field is about 20 miles long and two miles at its widest and has severely damaged more than 11 square miles of rainforest.
In the years since our visit, local unrest has continued. A political shift toward independence for that area generates some of the discontent, but much of it concerns the impact the mine has on the country’s resources and the treatment of workers.
In 1957, $1 was paid to the Howe mining company for the buildings and land that were to become Holden Village Retreat Center in the Cascade Mountains of Washington state. This site held one of the largest copper mines in United States, in existence from late 1937 until 1957. We visited there in the late 1980s at a time when they were trying to address the problem of the tailings polluting the nearby streams.
The site has been labeled by the Environment Protection Agency as a Superfund site. Deciding who was going to pay for the clean-up and how it was going to be done took 50 years to determine. After many years of planning, remediation is being done in 2011-2015, followed by five years of testing and analysis. During the clean-up the Retreat Center has had to close its programs for two years. (Still today the only way to reach Holden is to take a passenger ferry up Lake Chelan or to hike through the Cascade Mountains.)
These are complex matters. Weighing the value of the environment against the need for employment for hundreds of families is extremely difficult. In Minnesota as negotiations with PolyMet continue, it is imperative that extensive studies be made of the environmental impact. We hope that ways can be found that both needs can be addressed and safely accommodated.