I appreciated former Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr’s candid view in the News Tribune of Minnesota’s environmental review and permitting process for mining (“Reviewing a mining plan doesn’t go far enough,” April 7).
As a state official who signed permits for Glencore’s PolyMet mine and other mining projects, Landwehr is in a unique position to understand the failures of Minnesota’s current mining regulations.
“Minnesota state standards allow for pollution and significant changes to landscapes and ecosystems,” Landwehr wrote. “Mine plan-specific environmental review and permitting fails to consider if hardrock mining or other industrial use is compatible with existing land uses. ...
“The Minnesota permitting process is not nearly as thorough as mining proponents would have you believe,” he also wrote. “Unfortunately, current regulations do not allow much of the information collected in an environmental review to be considered in deciding whether to issue a permit.” And, “Finally, the fact is that no one knows whether a mine is "safe" until dozens if not hundreds of years after it closes. Accidents happen. Tailings liners leak. Mining companies always tell regulators their mines are safe. Far more often they still pollute much more than was promised.”
While I wish Landwehr had been this candid when he was commissioner, I appreciate his honesty now. I agree with him that the current mining review and permitting process has serious flaws. But just as importantly, recent court rulings on the PolyMet and Minntac permits have exposed the extent to which the Minnesota mining regulators often fail to follow or enforce existing rules to protect our air, water, health, and safety.
In light of this reality, one can only conclude that Minnesota must take a more conservative approach to non-ferrous sulfide ore mining: by proving it first. Let’s not use Minnesota as a guinea pig for implausible industry promises that, “This time we’ll do it better.” I say, prove it first.
State Sen. Jen McEwen, DFL-Duluth, is leading the way to this safer, more conservative approach to non-ferrous mining. Together with four other senators and 35 members of the Minnesota House, she introduced a bill (SF 59/HF 148) requiring the mining industry to open, operate, and close a non-ferrous sulfide-ore mine in a similar environment — without polluting and violating the law — before Minnesota considers issuing a permit.
This is not such a radical idea. In fact, Wisconsin had such a law in place for 20 years until corporate lobbyists and former Gov. Scott Walker oversaw its repeal.
I applaud the sponsors of this legislation in Minnesota. Despite their efforts, leaders of both parties in the Minnesota House and Senate will not even allow a hearing, much less a floor vote. What — or who — are they scared of?
We deserve better. To find a good remedy for the flaws in Minnesota’s permitting process, the Legislature must open its doors to hearings, evidence, and true problem-solving. It’s time legislative leaders start representing everyday Minnesotans and embrace good public policy instead of mining-company lobbyists.
Minnesota’s ore deposits have been here for millions of years. Our clean water — Lake Superior, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, the Mississippi River, and more — can be ruined in the blink of an eye by a rush to mine copper sulfide ores with an inadequately conservative permitting process. The world has yet to experience such a mine in a water-rich environment that has not devastated waterways with toxic drainage.
It is prudent to say “prove it first” before Minnesota takes such a drastic step.
Don Arnosti of St. Paul is an environmental consultant and a board member for the anti-PolyMet nonprofit WaterLegacy (waterlegacy.org). He also is a past executive director of both Audubon Minnesota and the Minnesota division of the Izaak Walton League.