Local view: Sulfide mine cleanup costs must be borne by companies
Much of the debate surrounding sulfide mining -- including PolyMet's proposed mine near Hoyt Lakes and the proposed Duluth Metals mine adjacent to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness -- revolves around whether companies have adequate...
Much of the debate surrounding sulfide mining -- including PolyMet's proposed mine near Hoyt Lakes and the proposed Duluth Metals mine adjacent to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness -- revolves around whether companies have adequate
bankruptcy-proof financial assurances in place to cover cleanup costs when (not if) acid-mine drainage occurs. This is not a small issue. PolyMet's proposed mine, for example, is within the Partridge River watershed, a headwater tributary of the St. Louis River, which enters Lake Superior at Duluth.
Copper-mining operations, sometimes called "hard-rock mining" or "sulfide mining," have left toxic scars across the country, with acids and sulfides leaching into streams, contaminating rivers and lakes, killing fish and leaving dead zones. While the mining industry claims new technologies can help avert those kinds of problems here, skeptical sportsmen and others have demanded proof and argue that the short-term extraction of mineral wealth poses a long-term threat to the pristine qualities of an area dependent on outdoor recreation and tourism, not mining, for its future.
According to the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, "Mining of sulfide-metal ore has never been accomplished without causing eventual acid-metal leachate pollution" of ground and surface waters. As a result, Wisconsin placed a moratorium on sulfide mining operations in 1997 until it could be demonstrated that such a mine would not pollute the water. The moratorium still is in place.
PolyMet says acid-mine drainage will occur at its proposed Hoyt Lakes mine. The company's recent draft Environmental Impact Statement said that, "Water leaching from the waste rock piles is expected to be contaminated for up to 2,000 years;" that, "The West Mine Pit will overflow at Mine Year 65 (45 years after expected mine closure), contaminating the adjacent Partridge River with sulfates and heavy metals;" and that, "Due to structural instability, the tailings basin has a 'low margin of safety.' "
Adding insult to injury, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency gave the PolyMet sulfide mining proposal a failing grade, a ranking of "environmentally unsatisfactory (and) inadequate." This is a ranking the EPA gives less than 1 percent of the time to projects like this.
Specifically, the EPA said that, "All waste rock at the site is acid generating, and acidic water ... will mobilize metals and sulfates, leaching them into groundwater and surface water;" that, "The (draft Environmental Impact Statement) did not provide information on financial assurance;" that, "The project will result in unacceptable long-term water quality impacts ... increasing mercury loadings into the Lake Superior watershed;" that, "The proposed approaches to manage acid generation are untested or unproven at the proposed scale;" and that, "This project may have substantial and unacceptable adverse impacts ... to the Lake Superior watershed and the Great Lakes basin."
The very lifeblood of northern Minnesota's economy is its healthy watersheds and waterways, but PolyMet's proposed mine waste will be leaching sulfuric acid into those same northern Minnesota waterways "for up to 2,000 years." Is 20 years worth of copper mining jobs worth 2,000 years of poisoned waterways and watersheds that will cost the rest of us millions, and possibly billions, to clean up?
The risks to taxpayers and northern Minnesota's waterways cannot be overstated and should not be brushed under the rug by short-sighted legislators. If PolyMet and Duluth Metals officials won't agree to abide by tough, common-sense legislation that requires them to be held fully accountable for all future remediation and cleanup costs, thereby protecting taxpayers from having to pay to clean up their toxic mess, it's time to send them packing.
David A. Lien of Colorado Springs, Colo., is a big-game hunter, a Grand Rapids native, a life member of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association and the acting chairman of Minnesota Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.