Don’t allow sulfide mining without answers to concernsWater is written into our state’s identity: We are the Land of 10,000 Lakes. What we do to protect Minnesota’s lakes and rivers today will determine what future we leave for our children and grandchildren.
By: Paul Austin, Paul Dancic and Scott Strand, Duluth News Tribune
Water is written into our state’s identity: We are the Land of 10,000 Lakes. What we do to protect Minnesota’s lakes and rivers today will determine what future we leave for our children and grandchildren.
Later this summer, Gov. Mark Dayton and the Department of Natural Resources will be faced with an important decision about the future of Minnesota’s lakes and rivers. The new draft environmental impact statement for the PolyMet mining project near Hoyt Lakes is expected to be released, and the Dayton administration will have to decide how or whether the project should proceed.
The PolyMet project is the first proposed sulfide mine in Minnesota, located near waters that flow into Lake Superior. Another proposed mine by Twin Metals would operate next to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Sulfide mining is different from our traditional iron mining and holds the potential for long-lasting toxic pollution.
We urge Dayton to respond to four simple, common-sense questions when considering proposals for sulfide mining in Minnesota. These are seemingly no-brainer questions, ones that focus on how clean our waters will be left if this kind of mining is permitted. But the very need to ask these basic questions reveals a complicated, dirty truth about this kind of mining. It is not a given that sulfide mining can leave our waters clean. Such mining never has left waters clean in other states or countries. We need our government to thoroughly grapple with its answers to these questions.
One, will Minnesota’s lakes, rivers and streams stay safe and clean?
Minnesota’s economy and quality of life depend on clean water. But no one can point to a copper mine anywhere in the world that has operated and closed without polluting nearby waters. PolyMet and Twin Metals propose mines that could affect some of Minnesota’s most cherished lakes and rivers. Has PolyMet really proven this time it will be done differently?
Two, are strong safeguards in place in case things go wrong?
Lots of things can and do go wrong at copper mines. Tailings basins leak, wastewater treatment plants fail and polluted water shows up where it was not expected. It is not good enough for the company to say it thinks everything will work fine, and if it doesn’t to promise it’ll figure out a way to fix it somehow. Too much is at stake here to kick the can down the road and just hope for the best. So is the company ready with detailed plans for every reasonably foreseeable contingency? And has it set aside enough money in advance to cover the potential costs?
Three, will the company leave the site clean and maintenance-free?
Minnesota law requires that when a copper mine closes the company must fully reclaim the site and leave it so it requires no further maintenance. Can the company guarantee it can meet that minimum standard? Or is Minnesota going to join the list of states left with 25, 100, 500 or even thousands of years of pollution to monitor and treat?
And four, are Minnesota’s taxpayers protected?
When mines stop making enough money for their financial backers, they close, often suddenly. The local mining company goes bankrupt and the investors walk away with the profits, leaving taxpayers holding the bag for cleanup. So, as required by Minnesota law, has the company put up enough money in advance to cover the costs of closure, corrective actions and any post-closure water-quality treatment or maintenance that might be required?
These are straightforward, common-sense questions. They should not raise an impossibly high bar. After all, these are no more than what the law already requires. But unless the new Environmental Impact Statement can answer with an unequivocal “yes” all these questions, these sulfide-mining projects are not ready to go forward.
Paul Austin of Minneapolis is executive director of Conservation Minnesota, Paul Danicic of Minneapolis is executive director of Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness and Scott Strand of St. Paul is executive director of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. They wrote this for the News Tribune on behalf of the grass-roots group Mining Truth (miningtruth.org), which is promoting the four questions discussed in the commentary.