Local view: PolyMet study proves risk too highAs government documents go, the new “supplemental” analysis of PolyMet’s proposed sulfide copper mine is pretty startling.
By: Marc Fink, for the News Tribune
As government documents go, the new “supplemental” analysis of PolyMet’s proposed sulfide copper mine is pretty startling.
Not only would it cost up to $200 million to close the open-pit mine, mechanical water treatment could be needed for at least 200 years at the mine site and 500 years at the processing plant. Post-closure monitoring and maintenance is estimated at
$3.5 million to $6 million each year. Together, the cleanup, maintenance and monitoring costs over 500 years could approach a staggering $3 billion.
And yet, after years of study, there are still no details concerning financial assurance in the environmental analysis. The public and taxpayers instead are asked to trust that PolyMet and the agencies eventually will figure out how to ensure that the water treatment plants will be in place and adequately funded for perhaps hundreds of years.
That’s a lot to ask of Minnesotans who value clean water and a healthy environment and who wish to leave the same for their children and grandchildren.
Five hundred years ago, Leonardo da Vinci was painting the Mona Lisa, Martin Luther was posting his 95 Theses and Christopher Columbus was landing in the Caribbean. It’s hard to imagine that 500 years from now funding will still be in place from PolyMet to operate water-treatment plants. That’s centuries after its profits from the mine are long gone.
What’s more, even after the 500 years, water pollution from the mine could continue. PolyMet’s “Water Modeling Data Package” graphs indicate that water quality would remain poor, meaning that water treatment could be perpetual. This runs counter to Minnesota law, which calls for mining sites to be maintenance-free after closure.
And not all polluted water may be treated. Substantial amounts of polluted seepage could enter our groundwater untreated. In addition, more than 900 acres of high-quality wetlands could be permanently destroyed with thousands of additional acres of wetlands indirectly affected. And more than 4,000 acres of wildlife habitat could be degraded, including more than two square miles of critical habitat for the endangered Canada lynx and important habitat for Minnesota’s declining moose population.
Additionally, the proposed mine site is located on the Superior National Forest, where an open-pit mine is not allowed. But instead of rejecting the proposed mine, the U.S. Forest Service is proposing a land exchange with PolyMet to eliminate this surface protection.
No matter how long the agencies analyze this proposal, there’s no avoiding the significant irreversible environmental damage it’ll cause. It would be a 600- to 700-foot-deep, open-pit mine designed to remove more than 530 million tons of ore and waste rock in a water-rich environment dominated by high-quality wetlands.
Moreover, PolyMet is just the first of several copper-mine proposals for Northeastern Minnesota, with widespread exploration occurring in both the Lake Superior and Boundary Waters watersheds. Much of the Lake Superior watershed already exceeds standards for mercury and other pollutants. And the Environmental Protection Agency has identified heavy-metals mining as the nation’s top toxic-producing industry. It has polluted watersheds across the West.
Before the first sulfide copper mine is approved in the state, the agencies should take a step back and prepare a region-wide risk assessment to assess the extent of existing pollution and determine what a new sulfide mine district would mean for this region’s world-renowned waters.
State and federal regulators are accepting public comment on the supplemental environmental analysis for PolyMet’s proposal, and a public hearing is scheduled for Duluth on Thursday. Please make your voice heard.
Marc Fink is a senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity in Duluth.