In Response: Reviewing a mining plan doesn't go far enough
From the column: "The federal withdrawal process takes a broader view of how such a major land-use change would affect an area. It is a critical step in the process and one that is necessary to ensure our precious and dwindling natural areas are preserved."
At the heart of the News Tribune's criticism of Sen. Tina Smith’s request for a mineral-withdrawal study in the headwaters of the Rainy River was a fundamental mischaracterization of the study as "generic" and "political." (The criticism came in the March 31 “Our View” editorial, “Scrap general study for fair, thorough review of underground mining plan.”)
In fact, the mineral process is neither, and Sen. Smith got it right. Here’s why.
The withdrawal study is not political and not “sans detail,” as the editorial stated. It is a science-based review on the propriety of sulfide-ore mining in an extremely fragile and precious wilderness watershed. It is a legally defined and fair process and provides information that is not obtained or used in the typical mine plan-specific environmental review and permitting process. It had initially been embraced for the Boundary Waters watershed by the administration of President Donald Trump, per statements to that effect by then-Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue.
Nor is the withdrawal process "generic." Rather, it addresses a more fundamental question than a mine plan review, which is, "Where is it appropriate to mine and where is it not?" Because Minnesota state standards allow for pollution and significant changes to landscapes and ecosystems, the question being asked by the mineral withdrawal study must be answered before any plan is reviewed. Mine plan-specific environmental review and permitting fails to consider if hardrock mining or other industrial use is compatible with existing land uses. You wouldn’t build a nuclear plant next to a residential area regardless of the detailed specifications and safety features a nuclear plant-specific project plan would provide. It simply isn’t compatible.
The Rainy River Headwaters watershed — the area of the study — is not a mining district. It is intact forest, wetlands, lakes, and rivers. There simply is no way any mine could be developed that wouldn’t severely negatively impact the area. That’s why the U.S. Forest Service declared in 2016 that mining posed “too great a risk” when, after two years of study, it denied its consent to renew mining leases in the watershed of the Boundary Waters.
Further, and more importantly, regardless of how thorough a mine plan-specific environmental review is conducted, the Minnesota permitting process is not nearly as thorough as mining proponents would have you believe. 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. Even if environmental review finds that the impacts would severely damage a local economy (as a Harvard study has shown), or if property values would decline precipitously, or if human health would be negatively impacted. Minnesota regulations may not allow these negative impacts to support the denial of a permit. Only a small subset of all possible impacts is subject to regulation, such as water quality, air quality, water use, and land reclamation (a total misnomer, as the land is never returned to its previous condition).
When permits are considered, the project must only show that it can meet state “standards.” These standards, especially for mines, allow for pollution and degradation; they don’t prevent it. For instance, sulfate is an important regulated pollutant. In high concentrations, it kills wild rice and causes mercury to be more available to fish. The state standard in this area would likely require no more than 10 parts per million (ppm) to be discharged, but the current level in these waters is 1.5 ppm. A permit issued under Minnesota’s standards would allow a 600% increase in sulfates — which would result in a cascade of negative effects. The same is true with other water- and air-quality pollutants, as well as noise, dust, and light pollution.
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.
The federal withdrawal process takes a broader view of how such a major land-use change would affect an area. It is a critical step in the process and one that is necessary to ensure our precious and dwindling natural areas are preserved.
Sen. Smith got it right, and Minnesotans greatly appreciate that.
Tom Landwehr is executive director of the nonprofit Save the Boundary Waters (savetheboundarywaters.org) and is a former commissioner for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.