Column: Proposed copper-nickel mining poses risk to wild rice futureThe University of Minnesota Duluth recently hosted “Manoominmiinawaa Miskwaabikakewin Maawandwewenge,” Ojibwe for “Wild Rice and Mining Forum,” Nov. 26.
By: Reyna Crow, For the Budgeteer News
The University of Minnesota Duluth recently hosted “Manoominmiinawaa Miskwaabikakewin Maawandwewenge,” Ojibwe for “Wild Rice and Mining Forum,” Nov. 26.
The forum taught attendees about the importance of what the Anishinaabe call manoomin, which others may know as wild rice, to the Anishinaabe people and the environment. The forum had a particular focus on the potential impact that a proposed mine of a type new to Minnesota might have on manoomin, which is highly sensitive to water quality.
Minnesotans have long been familiar with mining which extracts iron ore, but the proposed mine near Hoyt Lakes would be mining mainly for copper and nickel, according to LaTisha Gietzen, who is vice president of public, government and environmental affairs for PolyMet, the company seeking permitting for the project.
“Every person on earth uses these metals every day of their life,” Gietzen said. “Many of the metals we are mining are used in technology that cleans up the environment.”
“Copper-nickel mining,” as Gietzen calls it, involves processing sulfide-bearing rock. When waste rock from iron ore mining is exposed to water, it creates rust. But when sulfides are exposed to air and water, they oxidize, which can create sulfuric acid, which can leach into surface water such as lakes, streams and ponds. So it is sometimes referred to as “sulfide mining.”
Forum organizer Robert DesJarlait, Red Lake Anishinaabeg, member of the University of Minnesota Council of Elders and founder of “Protect Our Manoomin,” said, “I’m concerned about the effects of sulfide mining on wild rice because the sulfates released into the water can severely damage or destroy wild rice. Wild rice is a cultural, spiritual, environmental, and economic resource for Anishinaabe people. Thousands of acres of wild rice will be impacted by sulfide mining. Sulfates also transform into methyl mercury that, in turn, enter the human food chain through fish. I think people need to bear in mind that several sulfide mining companies intend to open mines across northern and central Minnesota This will place our environment at great risk.”
Duluthian Mary Dosch attended the forum. “The track record for sulfide mining everywhere it has been done is one of lasting and severe environmental destruction, due to toxic metals leaching forever from waste rock and tailings into our groundwater and surface waters,” she said. Dosch said she was “extremely concerned.”
Of the project’s potential benefit to Duluthians, Gietzen said that the capital investment would be some “$475 million in the construction phase,” adding that this phase is “expected to generate some 2 million hours of construction labor, much of which is likely to come out of the Duluth labor market.” Citing a study by the Labovitz School of Business and Economics, she places the economic benefit to St. Louis County overall at about $10.3 billion over the 20-year life of the sought permit.
Bob Tammen, longtime Iron Range resident and retired electrician who once worked in the mines, has been watching the mining industry closely. He isn’t convinced that the proposed mine would bring prosperity on the range, much less Duluth. Tammen says of the mining industry that while “There’s no denying that they do create some good-paying jobs, the spinoff jobs are not bringing the rest of the community into prosperity.” Tammen adds that while “Virginia has three operating taconite plants, in the last census, Virginia lost population. There’s a town withering away despite active mines.”
The proposed mine has the potential for tremendous negative impact on waterways, including manoomin beds and those upon which we otherwise rely for many purposes. These impacts would last far longer than the permitting life of the project. While Gietzen is correct in asserting that “Three federal agencies are involved and there won’t be a permit issued if we can’t meet the [environmental protection] standards”, the standard for sulfates in and near wild rice beds has already come under attack (http://www.northlandsnewscenter.com/home/
The sulfate standards were found to be consistent with the Clean Water Act, and are based on sound science. No permit should be issued for any project which cannot demonstrate conclusively that it can and will operate under this, and other currently existing standards.
Duluthian Reyna Crow has a degree in economics from the University of Wisconsin.