Potential PolyMet health effects concern Northland medical professionalsA group of Duluth-area physicians, nurses and medical school faculty says the effects of copper mining on human health haven’t been adequately addressed in the PolyMet environmental review.
By: John Myers, Duluth News Tribune
A group of Duluth-area physicians, nurses and medical school faculty says the effects of copper mining on human health haven’t been adequately addressed in the PolyMet environmental review.
The group says the environmental review, which is open for public comment through March 13, fails to define the human health effects of increased mercury emissions, exposure to asbestos-like mineral fibers and arsenic.
The 19 health care professionals say the state and federal agencies conducting the environmental impact statement “have not been clear about the health impacts that sulfide mining will have on the people of Northeastern Minnesota and visitors to the region.”
“The World Health Organization lists 10 chemicals of major public health concern. Sulfide (copper) mining involves five of them, including mercury, arsenic, lead, asbestos and air pollution,” the group wrote.
Dr. Susan Nordin, a family practice physician in UMD health services who signed the letter, said the effort grew from a concern among local physicians who had questions about the proposed mine.
In addition to the letter sent to newspapers, the group also is sending a formal comment letter to the state and federal agencies overseeing the environmental review.
“Everyone who we’ve sent the letter to so far has said yes, put my name on it,” Nordin said. “We just think that the human health impacts really need to be included in this review. But so far, they’re not in there.”
Nordin said she expects more health care providers to sign the letter.
Bruce Richardson, PolyMet vice president of corporate communications, said the project won’t be given permits to operate “if we cannot demonstrate that we meet all federal and state standards for safety, human health and the environment.”
“We are confident our project design will meet all those standards,” Richardson said in a written comment. “Individuals or groups who have any concerns or comments about our proposed project should submit their comment to the co-lead agencies managing this process.”
The letter notes that mercury contamination of fish, and the people who eat fish, already is an issue in the region and that the PolyMet project could contribute to the level of toxic mercury in local waterways. The environmental review “fails to clearly state the expected amounts of mercury that will be released into surrounding watersheds over time, and does not give estimations of how much mercury is likely to affect significant water bodies downstream from the project, particularly the St. Louis River and Lake Superior Basin.”
The letter also claims that PolyMet and regulatory agencies have not looked at the possible health impact of dust containing asbestos-like amphibole fibers because such dust isn’t regulated. The environmental review document states that the “potential exists for the release of amphibole mineral fibers from the proposed operations which could pose a potential public health risk of uncertain magnitude.”
Similar fibers from a taconite iron ore pit, formerly operated by Reserve Mining, were the impetus for a court order requiring Reserve to stop dumping its waste rock slurry into Lake Superior in the 1970s for fear those fibers could be hazardous to human health. That taconite mine is just a few miles from the proposed PolyMet mine.
“This is not reassuring,” the health care providers added. “PolyMet’s plan does not clearly demonstrate that risks to human health have been thoroughly evaluated. For current and future generations, this is unjustifiable, especially for a project that will have long-term pollution problems and regional health impacts related to toxic metals, asbestos and air pollution … We can do better than this for Minnesota.”
The letter also was signed by Dr. John Ipsen, Dr. Kristan Wegerson, Dr. Robert Stubenvoll and Dr. Steven Long of St. Luke’s, Duluth; Dr. Doug Hoffman, Dr. Craig Peterson, Dr. Kirsten Bich, Dr. Bruce Derauf, Dr. Christine Swenson, Dr. Irene Carr, Dr. Jeffrey Adams and Dr. Elizabeth Raduege of Essentia Health, Duluth; registered nurse Bethel Anderson of Cloquet; registered nurse Jeanette Johnsen of Floodwood; Dr. Steve Bauer of the Human Development Center, Duluth; Dr. Emily Onello and Dr. Jennifer Pearson of the University of Minnesota Medical School Duluth; and Dr. Jacob Prunuske of the University of Minnesota Medical School Duluth and Lake Superior Community Health Center.