Our view: Dispel this PolyMet mythThe argument gets repeated by people opposed to metals mining in Northeastern Minnesota: A mere 20 years of mining and mining jobs aren’t worth 200 to 500 years of toxic pollution, opponents say again and again.
The argument gets repeated by people opposed to metals mining in Northeastern Minnesota: A mere 20 years of mining and mining jobs aren’t worth 200 to 500 years of toxic pollution, opponents say again and again.
And who could argue? Who would consider that a fair trade?
The problem is the argument isn’t accurately based, not the 20 years of mining part and not the 500 years of polluting part.
“There’s some misinformation out there,” PolyMet Mining President and CEO Jon Cherry said at a chamber-sponsored luncheon Tuesday in Duluth. “I think it’s (from) a misreading or misinterpretation of what’s actually in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement.”
A Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement for PolyMet’s proposed mining is under public review right now: thus the arguments being made. If the environmental review is deemed adequate, PolyMet will apply for permits to mine for copper and other precious metals on the Duluth Complex north of the city.
At the luncheon held inside the Kitchi Gammi Club, Cherry addressed first the claims of 200 and 500 years of pollution.
“In the EIS we had to build groundwater flow and transport models,” he explained. “Water goes through an aquifer typically a couple of inches per day or maybe a few feet per year. So … we had to run those models for 200 to 500 years … to allow enough time for the water to migrate through the aquifer to get to the compliance point on the boundary that we were looking at.
“And guess what,” he said. “The good news is when we get to 200 or 500 years, it’s in compliance with the standards that are out there. So it’s something that’s maybe being taken and twisted and misrepresented a little bit.”
In other words, just because the modeling incorporates a 200- to 500-year timeframe doesn’t mean the mine or PolyMet’s processing facility will need treatment for that long.
“You can design a mine and a processing facility that (are) going to be safe,” Cherry said. “I think that should be the goal of the industry. Regardless of where you build your mine it’s got to be safe and protective of the environment. It absolutely has to be or you shouldn’t be mining.”
But things happen, unforeseen things. That’s why Minnesota law requires mining companies to put up money ahead of time that can be spent after mining is finished to remedy pollution or other issues. State law also dictates that the dollar amount be determined by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources before issuing a permit to mine. The permitting process follows the environmental review process. So the dollar figure hasn’t been determined yet.
However, “We’re probably looking at a number that’s north of $100 million,” Cherry said. “We’re fine with that. It’s OK. Again, good for the environment, good for the industry (and) good for Minnesota taxpayers that it’ll be there as a protection. … The state of Minnesota is holding (that money. Then) every single year the state of Minnesota DNR goes through and re-evaluates that. So the number can go up or down. … It’s a very transparent process, and it’s done every year so you don’t get to the end of the 20 years and figure out you don’t have enough money in there.”
PolyMet is seeking a permit to mine for 20 years, but the company almost certainly will look to be mining for far longer than that. Twenty years at 32,000 tons per day results in 235 million tons mined. But the site is
1.2 billion tons in size. Also, other mining companies own rights elsewhere along the Duluth Complex and will follow PolyMet through the environmental review and permitting processes.
“You end up in this chicken-and-egg problem. If you continually chase this thing going forward you get into too many hypotheticals. It’s too far out into the future. So what you need to do is … take it in 20-year bites; say, ‘This is the plan for 20 years and that’s what’s on the table,” Cherry said. “Before we would be allowed to do any type of extension or any type of increased production rate or life extension … we would have to go through this process all over again, another EIS and permit application and all those sorts of things. … Right now it’s all about the 20 years that’s right in front of us.”
So 20 years of mining? It’ll be far more than that. PolyMet and other mining companies are banking on it. And that’s all the more reason for them to operate in an environmentally responsible way.