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In Response: Foolish to feel Antofagasta won't leave environmental mess in Minnesota

As a member of the League of Women Voters Duluth's natural resources committee, I would like to respond to the News Tribune's Dec. 5 editorial (Our View: "Right the wrong done to Twin Metals").

Gay TrachselI took issue with some of the editorial's views.

Mineral leases were not "yanked away," as the editorial stated. They just were not renewed. It was a 20-year lease with an option to extend three times for 10 years. Under that contract, the mine was expected to have started production. It had not. The editorial stated it had been a matter of routine to renew the leases, as if that would have justified renewing them again. Is it not possible the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service had good cause not to renew them, that those possibilities may have included violations of the leases, current science, environmental reviews that were not in place at the time when the leases were first granted, and the interests of the country?

The environmental record of Twin Metals' parent company, the Chilean Antofagasta Minerals Company, seems to me reason enough for a pause. The Santiago Times newspaper in Chile, the Reuters news service, and the charitable organization Oxfam reported in 2014 that the water needs of farmers competed with Antofagasta mining operations and that the company bought up water rights, leaving riverbeds dry and villages without water. In 2009, according to reports, Antofagasta was fined hundreds of thousands of dollars for toxic spills into Choapa River. In 2013, it violated environmental permits that could cost the company millions in fines. And a charge was filed against the company for the mismanagement of archaeological sites.

Minnesota has stringent environmental regulations and a comprehensive process to be adhered to before permits to mine can be issued. I won't argue about the strength of Minnesota's regulations. That can be a topic for another article. However, if regulations are not enforced — such as the sulfide standard that has been in place for years, which iron ore mines ignore — the argument becomes moot.

Also, when a company has a history of ignoring environmental regulations and of noncompliance with regard to permits, it seems reasonable to take another look at renewing one of its subsidiaries' mineral leases.

Whenever there have been open listening sessions, elected officials always have brought up the idea of letting the process work. I found it ironic that part of the process allows impacted individuals, communities, and organizations to legally challenge a decision but then some of those same elected officials introduced legislation (H.R. 3905 and H.R. 3115) to bypass the process with no chance for court review. The legislation they proposed wouldn't allow for the study that was to investigate the impacts of copper-sulfide mining in northern Minnesota, either. It would do so by cutting off funding.

A part of the process Minnesotans have been asking for is financial assurance, established to pay for the cleanup of any pollution during operation or after shutdown. On Dec. 1, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt rescinded this requirement, however, stating that modern industry adequately address the risks. It seems to me that many companies, including mining companies, have abandoned sites or have declared bankruptcy and have left contamination for taxpayers to foot the bill to clean up. Look no further than Superfund site along the St. Louis River for an example.

I believe it was incorrect for the editorial to suggest that Antofagasta was wronged, as the company has not been good neighbors in its own country. It is a huge leap of faith to believe it will come to Minnesota and not leave the U.S. with a mess that could last for 500 years.

The News Tribune could better serve its readers if instead of always coming down on the side of the mining companies it supported the federal Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service, whose missions include making decisions based on what serves the common good — not the bottom line.

Gay Trachsel is a member of League of Women Voters Duluth's natural resource committee.