Local view: Science must guide sulfide mining choices
Decisions about how we extract natural resources to benefit society while protecting our environment are increasingly complex and interconnected. Business success in using natural resources no longer depends merely upon the presence of the resour...
Decisions about how we extract natural resources to benefit society while protecting our environment are increasingly complex and interconnected.
Business success in using natural resources no longer depends merely upon the presence of the resource and the means to extract it. It also depends on the social license, or the public trust, to do so safely. Key to this trust is the assurance of a balanced, unbiased, science-based approach to decision-making.
At the University of Minnesota Duluth’s Natural Resource Research Institute, we understand this complexity. Our mission, set forth by the Minnesota Legislature in 1983, and our continued focus is “to foster the economic development of Minnesota’s natural resources in an environmentally sound manner to promote private-sector employment.”
For three decades, NRRI has provided balanced scientific study, economic analysis and environmental research about our region’s natural resources. As part of the University of Minnesota system, we advocate for excellence in engineering, science and economics. We do not advocate for decisions, positions or policies.
The demand for resources by a growing global population challenges finite supplies. As we look to the future, our fresh water, forests and clean air will become more and more important, particularly as freshwater resources become the “new oil.”
The excitement of new opportunities can lead to understandable impatience for reaching decisions. But decisions about the proposed mining of copper, nickel and other precious metals in Minnesota will require choices that absolutely must be based on sound science.
We depend upon these metals for everything from renewable energy, transportation and communication to specialized medicines. A domestic source of these materials has potential for true economic benefit to Minnesota and could become an international competitive advantage for our country.
But these metals occur in sulfide-rich ores that have been associated with acid drainage, heavy-metal pollution and serious environmental damage when mined around the world. Mining these ores in the water-rich environment of northern Minnesota naturally raises serious concerns about the so-far-unproven capability of extracting them without causing harm. Solutions will require the innovations, not iterative improvements, of current technologies.
The University of Minnesota recently submitted a 2016-2017 budget request to the Legislature that included a $6.25 million investment to finance a sustainable mining research initiative. NRRI is collaborating closely with the university’s Twin Cities, Duluth and Morris campuses.
The goal of this initiative is to engage the university’s multidisciplinary research power to deliver balanced, science-based information and tools. This research will focus on the development of innovative solutions to improve resource recovery and to prevent or effectively treat pollution.
NRRI will continue to deliver on its mission by adhering to a holistic, multidisciplinary approach and by actively engaging Minnesota stakeholders. We look forward to helping our state develop strong, long-term industries. We’re also committed to a clean environment and understand that economic success is inextricably linked to it.
As a state, we need to get it right the first time. NRRI, as part of the University of Minnesota, is ready to facilitate that commitment. We owe it to those who will come after us.
Rolf Weberg is director of the Natural Resources Research Institute at the University of Minnesota Duluth (nrri.umn.edu).