A new type of mining is under consideration for Northern Minnesota. Exploration for precious metals such as copper, nickel, gold, platinum, and others has begun and one mining company, PolyMet, has a proposal for a sulfide currently under environmental review. However, unlike taconite mining, the byproduct of this mining is largely sulfides. When sulfides are exposed to water and air, they produce sulfuric acid. Sulfide mines throughout the U.S. have contaminated lakes, rivers, and groundwater with acid and heavy metals. In many cases, bankrupt mining companies have left taxpayers footing the bill for the cleanup.
Some of the risks from sulfide mining include:
- Acid Mine Drainage - metals are typically embedded with sulfides. Sulfides, while generally harmless underground, can become highly acidic when exposed to air and water at the surface. One study found that, among modern mines in the US that predicted that no acid mine drainage would occur, 89% of those mines did have acid mine drainage during operations or after closure.
- Sulfates - sulfates are harmful to native wild rice, an important economic and cultural resource in Minnesota. Sulfates can also be harmful to other sorts of aquatic plants. Researchers report that areas exposed to high sulfate levels often turn to monocultures as very few plants are able to survive. Modeling at the PolyMet site shows that water running off the mine features will be hundreds or even thousands of times the safe level for wild rice.
- Mercury - sulfates encourage the absorption of mercury into fish and aquatic plants. According to the Minnesota Department of Health, one in ten newborns on the Northshore of Minnesota already have unsafe levels of mercury in their blood. This is a significant public health issue that Minnesota cannot ignore.
- Other heavy metals - Heavy metals including arsenic, copper, nickel and lead that are toxic to fish and plants and harmful to humans may also be present at a mining site at high levels.
MCEA is carefully monitoring PolyMet’s proposal for a new sulfide mine near Hoyt Lakes. MCEA is concerned about how the mine will prevent metals and sulfides in massive piles of waste rock from turning into sulfuric acid and leaching into nearby waters years, or even decades, from now. MCEA is also skeptical that an open pit mine, which is being proposed instead of an underground mine, is necessary. Open-pit mining is prohibited on the desired mining land because surface rights belong to the Superior National Forest. To fix this issue PolyMet proposed a “land swap” where PolyMet would purchase land adjacent to the SNF and exchange it for the land it would like to mine. The Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board (IRRRB) approved a $4 million dollar loan to PolyMet for the project. MCEA and partners argued in District Court that the IRRRB’s action violated state law.
The first Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the mine was released by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources' and public comments were taken through February 3, 2010. With its experts, MCEA crafted an extensive response and found numerous problems, including the likely mercury contamination of fish, and a lack of discussion over how PolyMet would monitor water quality after it leaves the site, something that has to occur essentially in perpetuity to avoid contamination of nearby groundwater, lakes, and rivers. The Draft EIS has noted destruction of hundreds of acres of peatlands and wetlands in Superior National Forest, possibly the largest destruction of wetlands associated with a single project in Minnesota history.
On February 18, 2011 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency filed its comments and rated the Environmental Impact Statement “unacceptable.” As a result, PolyMet drafted a new a Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement.
On May 23, 2012 Conservation Minnesota, Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness and Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy launched Mining Truth. Mining Truth serves as a forum for responsible discussion on the economic, environmental, and policy-related aspects of sulfide mining in Minnesota.
On December 6, 2013 PolyMet's Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement (SDEIS) was released is now open for public comment. MCEA is working with four experts in preparation to provide extensive comments on the SDEIS. Now is the time to tell the DNR whether you agree with PolyMet. Visit www.miningtruth.org to find out whether MCEA and its partners believe that PolyMet has adequately answered the following questions, and then tell the DNR what you think.
The four questions that PolyMet needs to answer include:
Will Minnesota’s water stay safe and clean?
Are there strong safeguards in place for when things go wrong?
Will the company leave the site clean and maintenance free?
Will Minnesota taxpayers be protected?
Testimony of Kathryn Hoffman, Staff Attorney
Testimony of Scott Strand, Executive Director
Testimony of Alan Thometz, Vice Board Chair
MCEA Comments on the DEIS
Expert Report of Dave Chamber, PhD
Expert Report of Dan Engstrom, PhD
Expert Report of Paul Glaser, PhD
Expert Report of Don Siegel, PhD
Letter to Senator Klobuchar and Senator Franken objecting to their endorsement of the proposed PolyMet Mine
U.S. EPA Comments on SDEIS (8/7/2013)
US EPA Comments on DEIS
Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness on sulfide mining
Review of PolyMet Mining project finds treatment, and costs, lasting centuries, MinnPost, written by Ron Meador, December 10, 2013
State releases long-awaited impact statement for PolyMet mine, opens public comment period, Star Tribune, written by Josephine Marcotty, December 7, 2013
PolyMet's copper-nickel mine rekindles decades-old environmental debate, MPR News, written by Dan Kraker, December 5, 2013
PolyMet faces big step, but copper mine not yet guaranteed, Duluth News Tribune, written by John Myers, December 1, 2013
Mining Truth Initiative Launched in Minnesota to Increase Knowledge on Sulfide Mining, A to Z Mining, May 24, 2012
Is Sulfide Mining Right for Minnesota? A Conversation for All Minnesotans, Star Tribune, May 24, 2012
Campaign Against Metals Mining, WDIO Eyewitness News, May 23, 2012
New Statewide Initiative Asks if Sulfide Mining is Right for Minnesota, Market Watch, May 23, 2012
Environmental groups kick off copper-nickel mining campaign, Minnesota Public Radio, May 23, 2012
Battle waged over mining firms' plans in northern Minnesota, Star Tribune, May 22, 2012
Report: Great Lakes Vulnerable In New Mining Wave, Ashland Current, May 10, 2012
Sam Cook column: Trust at heart of copper mine debate, Duluth News Tribune, May 4, 2012
Split Opinions on Base & Precious Metals Mining, WDIO Eyewitness News, May 2, 2012
Mining Q&A Draws Hundreds to Duluth, Northland's News Center, May 2, 2012
MPR News Primer: Copper-nickel mining, Minnesota Public Radio, April 11, 2012