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Statewide View Column: Save Lake Superior from the ‘political juggernaut of support’ for copper mining

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2006 file / Forum News Service
We are part of The Trust Project.

As retired public officials from both political parties, we feel an obligation to speak out against this organized wall of silence that surrounds the permitting process that will enable Minnesota’s first large-scale sulfide mine, a project that threatens the health and viability of Lake Superior and Northeastern Minnesota.

Originally, proponents loudly and publicly proclaimed the virtues of more than 350 well-paying jobs that would be created with no harm to the pristine adjacent environment. We were assured the state’s mining laws were rigorous and the most challenging in the United States.

Our political establishment did all it seemingly could to expedite the project, including land transfers on both the federal and state levels. State Auditor Rebecca Otto stood firm and virtually alone in opposing the state’s exchange while Congresswoman Betty McCollum, later joined by U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen, rose to challenge the proposed rush to facilitate extensive sulfide mining . But President Barack Obama refused to yield to the pressure coming from Minnesota’s other congressional and state leaders, including Gov. Mark Dayton.

However, with the election of President Donald Trump in 2016, the rush to grant the necessary permits was back on. The federal-state cooperation to mine copper was now at full strength with only opposition from environmental groups, affected tribes, and a handful of elected officials with little power. They were no match for the political juggernaut of support.

But now, things have changed again. That small band of skeptics started to ask questions, and it became increasingly clear that the answers were not only unsatisfactory but downright alarming. So much so that even the current governor and legislative leaders from both sides of the aisle refuse to publicly comment and are steadfast in their resolve not to hold additional public hearings or in any way engage in more public discussion.

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This is abhorrent and unacceptable in a democratic society that declares power rests with the people.

Our elected officials are losing sight of the meaning of public service. They are the servants of the public and not their masters. And how they define that responsibility ripples throughout the entire governmental system.

The scandal involving employees withholding vital health and permitting data from the public is precisely what our leaders are doing. As a matter of fact, it is most likely that those employees did this at the behest of those leaders. This would help explain the stonewalling. It is interesting and disheartening how the issues in Minnesota seem to be so similar to those in Washington. Only the parties are different.

Now, let’s take a look at the contract negotiated by the Dayton administration with PolyMet. In it, the corporation receives permission to mine in a large defined area that affects the waters flowing into Lake Superior. In return, Minnesota receives an expectation of jobs estimated to reach some 350. However, the contract does not specify any number of jobs to be created nor is there any mention of wage levels or duration. In reality, PolyMet is in complete control of deciding what jobs will be created.

The number and exact nature of the promised jobs is a critical point that cannot be left undefined because 21st-century mining is radically different from the mining work of even a decade ago. Since 2012, the breakthroughs in computational sciences and processing speeds have made artificial intelligence technologies cheaper and more available, thus reducing reliance on human labor. It can be safely assumed that the expected job number will be significantly lower than 350 and that many of those positions requiring a strong technology background will come from outside the area.

Incredibly, our negotiating team never dealt with this issue.

Further, the contract does not provide for any health study involving toxic residues, including mercury and arsenic, should they seep into the watershed that provides the drinking water for the tribes and the people of Duluth. Virtually every medical association in Minnesota petitioned the governor for such a study, but their pleas were firmly rejected.

The contract provides money up front only for the construction period, not for reclamation or pollution treatment over the life of the mine. It sets up no funding at all to repay Minnesotans in the event of harmful leakage or the collapse of a sludge mountain (approximately the size of the Statue of Liberty), as occurred in Brazil in 2015. There, more than 200 people were killed and vast areas were permanently contaminated.

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Experts such as Earthworks have studied copper mining near water tables and could not find one that did not cause serious harm. Other experts have declared that the issue of collapse is not one of “if” but rather “when.”

The reality is that potential harm could cost billions of dollars. In spite of this, the contract is with PolyMet, a foreign corporation with considerable debt and few assets. There is no upfront money or any financial instrument of value being placed in escrow to cover damages. The reality is that PolyMet does not have the financial strength to insure a bicycle. The company is deep in debt.

Over 70 percent of PolyMet stock is held by Glencore, possibly the world’s most notorious rogue with an international rap sheet that exceeds that of gangster Al Capone. Charges against Glencore include bribery, child labor, racketeering, labor violations, and breach of contract. Currently, our U.S. Department of Justice is investigating Glencore for violations including money laundering.

While Glencore holds majority control and will receive the bulk of the profits, it is not a party to the contract and hence not liable for any of the damages. Considering the players, it is hard not to suspect that we are the intended victims of a scam. The setup is perfect for the mining operation to thrive for six to eight years with Glencore reaping the profits and then to leave Minnesota holding a worthless agreement with an empty PolyMet and a severely damaged Lake Superior and Northeastern Minnesota.

Regardless of fault in bringing us to this debacle, the PolyMet permit must be suspended until, at least, all concerns have been thoroughly and publicly investigated by an unbiased administrative judge. At stake are among our state’s most valuable natural resources, specifically the pristine waters of Lake Superior and the celebrated natural beauty of Northeastern Minnesota. Continued delay is not an option.

Our leaders would do well to remember the admonition of President Abraham Lincoln, “You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.”

Ultimate responsibility rests with Gov. Tim Walz, and the message is clear: No more stonewalling — just old-fashioned, honest leadership.

Tom Berkelman is a former DFL legislator from Duluth. Arne Carlson is a former Republican Minnesota governor. Janet Entzel is a former DFL legislator from Minneapolis. And Gene Merriam is a former DFL legislator from Coon Rapids, Minn., and the former commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources under Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty. They wrote this exclusively for the News Tribune.

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Related Topics: POLYMET
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