Collectively, Minnesota medical-professional organizations representing thousands of medical professionals have expressed their concern about the potential for harm to human health from the proposed PolyMet mine. Careful consideration of health risks is essential before moving forward with project permitting.
These Minnesota medical professionals include the Minnesota Public Health Association, the Minnesota Nurses’ Association, the Minnesota Medical Association and the Minnesota Academy of Family Physicians. Individual physicians representing multiple specialties also have expressed concerns on this issue. These organizations, which collectively represent more than 20,000 health professionals, have written letters to Gov. Mark Dayton and to the commissioners of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Minnesota Department Health and other state agencies about their concerns.
We at the Lake Superior Chapter of the Minnesota Academy of Family Physicians are very concerned about the potential for pollution and human health risks from the PolyMet project and how that might affect our region. In addition, our larger statewide Minnesota Academy of Family Physicians, representing more than 3,000 family doctors, unanimously passed a resolution calling for a health-risk assessment of copper-sulfide mining in Minnesota.
Our united concern is there is inadequate information in the current Environmental Impact Statement to determine the potential human health impact from the proposed PolyMet sulfide mining project.
Once sulfide mining is permitted to move forward, there will be no going back. We must ensure that the data on which permitting decisions are based is sound and thorough. We worry it will be incomplete and unsubstantiated in critical areas relating to toxic pollutants such as mercury.
The information in the EIS primarily was provided by the industry itself and a research firm paid for by PolyMet. We are concerned that information funded by industry is biased to show only the best-case scenario. Indeed, the impression one gets reading the EIS drafts has been that minimal pollution will occur, that operations will flow smoothly and that all will be well.
However, after reading critical reviews of the information in the EIS drafts, we are alarmed. Independent experts in the fields of hydrology and biogeochemistry have pointed out critical flaws and gaps in the data. An international mercury expert concluded that analysis concerning total mercury and methylmercury in waters potentially impacted by the proposed PolyMet project “are not sufficient to either adequately characterize the current mercury methylating environment nor to evaluate the potential for impact due to changes in hydrology, water quality or both as a result of the proposed project.”
At least five of 10 toxins of major public health concern to the World Health Organization (mercury, lead, arsenic, asbestos and particulate air pollution) are known to be released from copper-nickel mining as well as sulfates that can increase mercury methylation and accumulation in the food chain. These toxins are known to affect human health.
The PolyMet project’s negative impact could be profound and could have devastating consequences for infants and children due to the potential increase of heavy metals in the environment, including methylmercury, lead, arsenic and manganese. The environmental toxins listed have a risk of causing neurodevelopmental disorders.
The adage “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is applicable only when there is a cure. Unfortunately with many pollutant exposures, there is no way to “fix” the damage that occurs. Treatment may lessen the severity but cannot restore a damaged brain, heart or lung. Prevention cannot be traded for “cure.”
The voices of thousands of doctors, nurses and public-health professionals across the state of Minnesota trying to prevent toxic pollution and protect patients and communities deserve to be heard. We ask Gov. Mark Dayton and his commissioners to join our call for a thorough, independent and objective assessment of health risks related to the PolyMet sulfide mine project.
Dr. Debbie Allert, who practices in Two Harbors, is president of the Lake Superior chapter of the Minnesota Academy of Family Physicians and wrote this on behalf of the chapter. Others who contributed to the writing include Dr. Jen Pearson of Duluth, Dr. Emily Onello of Duluth, Dr. Susan Nordin of Duluth, Dr. John Ipsen of Duluth, Dr. Kris Wegerson of Duluth and Dr. Randy Rice of Sturgeon Lake, Minn. Others who signed on as supporters of the views in this commentary include family physicians Dr. Nancy Sudak, Dr. Brigid Pajunen, Dr. Jacob Prunuske, Dr. Christine Swensen, Dr. Lynn T. MacLean, Dr. Carol Farchmin, Dr. Jane Rudd, Dr. Sheri Bergeron, Dr. Kirsten Bich, Dr. Lisa Prusak and Dr. Steven Long; and child psychiatrists Dr. Margaret Saracino and Dr. Steven Bauer.