Weather Forecast


Local View: Proposed sulfide mine threatens Minnesota’s water, way of life

I live in vibrant Duluth, close to the St. Louis River, where I paddle, swim and explore. I deliberately chose to live here because of the beauty of the river and Lake Superior. In my work, I take visitors paddling, and I enjoy their amazement that these bodies of water, in their massive scale, are fresh and that we drink from them.

The river hasn’t always been so amazing. Though the first 1824 map showed dense wetlands and noted “wild rice and rushes line the banks of the river,” industrial contamination earned the St. Louis the dubious honor of becoming a Great Lakes Area of Concern, a designation meaning that water and sediments were dangerously unhealthy.

The renewed vibrancy we’re seeing in Duluth along the river now is largely due to the resulting clean-up effort since the 1980s. All told, nearly $6 billion will be spent on the clean-up before 2025, though some problems we have yet to solve, most notably mercury contamination in fish and sediments. This fall, we reseeded nearly 8,000 pounds of wild rice into the estuary. In 2017, we hopefully will begin to remove sediment contaminated with petrochemicals from the U.S. Steel site near Morgan Park, and even the most impacted neighborhoods will begin to turn around.

It’s an incredible time to live in Duluth.

But upriver, we face a threat that perhaps dwarfs the pollution of the past. So much effort in the lower river, so many years and hours, so many dollars and hopes may fall to the emerging threat of contamination from the proposed NorthMet sulfide mine, which would be operated by PolyMet.

Sulfuric acid is an inherent byproduct of such mining. Already, water is seeping from the proposed site of the NorthMet mine toward the Embarrass River and from there to the St. Louis River and Lake Superior. The project’s Final Environmental Impact Statement concluded that 20 gallons per minute of groundwater still will be seeping from the site after PolyMet is done mining. That’s approximately 10.5 million gallons annually flowing toward the Embarrass River, St. Louis River, and Lake Superior. These gallons may be contaminated with sulfuric acid, which is not compatible with life in and along riverbanks — and may render our many years of clean-up efforts effectively null and void.

The Environmental Impact Statement for the PolyMet project modeled the treatment of contaminated water for

500 years. Even with current pledges to reduce carbon at the climate talks in Paris, we expect a global increase in temperature of 6.3 degrees by 2100. We predict, and already are observing, that a warming planet brings greater weather extremes. The 2012 flood in Duluth, which pumped massive sediment and raw sewage into Lake Superior, was an example of such weather. Even the best engineering efforts are subject to the limits of human science. It is impossible to guarantee that tailings ponds and water-treatment facilities will function in an unpredictable future — even if perfectly constructed and maintained for 500 years and beyond.

Mining is a part of Minnesota’s identity, one that, along with jobs, brings economic instability and reduced environmental quality.  We are truly rich here in water, forests and human capital. We are on the cusp of transitioning to an innovative economy that will thrive beyond mining. The reality is that none of these exceptional features of Minnesota life can exist without clean water — not forests, not rivers, not the Great Lakes, not our Iron Range cities and not Duluth.

Considering these and many other sound reasons, we as residents of this region need to take advantage of our final window to submit comments about the PolyMet project to Gov. Mark Dayton and to Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr. Make a phone call, write a letter or send an email before the Dec. 21 deadline. We have a voice. Using it may never matter more.

Deanna M. Erickson of Duluth is a coordinator with “The Arrowhead Story,” a group that produces music events and albums focused on connecting the arts community to environmental issues ( Erickson also has worked regionally in environmental education, conservation biology and as a sea kayak instructor.