Op-ed: Let's finally see beyond the greenwashed promises from extractive industries
This op-ed appeared originally in the Duluth Reader. 4/22/23
Opinion by Abby Dougherty, MCEA Northeast Program Associate, Duluth Office, 4/22/23
The scene from the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy (MCEA) office is quintessentially Duluth: the birds eye view shows lakers leaving the harbor; to the right, the slope of the Hillside neighborhood fades into low clouds.
In the spring, we’ll see the Coast Guard Cutter break up the ice; and come summer, tourists will roam the sidewalks of Canal Park below, shivering in their swimsuits and coverups. We’re on the fourth floor of the Dewitt-Seitz building, a block from where the St. Louis River meets Lake Superior.
It’s a fitting place for the MCEA Duluth office, given so much of our history has been dedicated to protecting these waters. The St. Louis River is the largest tributary to Lake Superior, which itself holds 10% of Earth’s fresh surface water.
While at first glance the harbor area might just look like an industrial waterfront, a closer look reveals how drastically the health of this estuary has improved in recent years. Seabirds bob on the waves and circle Interstate Island, with healthy bird populations being an indicator of successful habitat restoration.
Today, it’s rare to see an oily rainbow sheen on the water, which would have been a common sight when unregulated pollution dumping was the norm through much of the 20th century. Under the surface, large swaths of the riverbed have been dredged to remove contaminated sediments – one step towards improving fish health, so one day people might be able to safely eat fish from the river again. Though a slow process, this expensive and complex clean-up project is paying off.
Despite the huge public investment necessary to bring life back to the estuary, new threats remain upstream that could undo this progress. One threat that is particularly troubling – at MCEA and among thousands of Northland residents – is called PolyMet.
If you’re new to the PolyMet saga, here’s the rundown: Glencore, a $160B Swiss mining and commodity trading conglomerate, has an interest in our resources here in Minnesota. Glencore has a subsidiary company whose main role is to put a local face on the effort to secure Glencore permission to mine in our state – that’s PolyMet.
Glencore has recently made headlines for a billion dollar corruption fine, including around its cobalt and copper mining operations in the Democratic Republic of Congo and its oil trading practices. Glencore’s PolyMet has proposed a copper sulfide mine in the St. Louis River watershed near Hoyt Lakes.
In February, Glencore and another mining company, Teck Resources, announced a joint venture that combines the PolyMet “NorthMet” deposit, the Teck “Mesaba” deposit three miles to the west, and the LTV Erie plant site that was shuttered in 2001. The joint venture, called “NewRange Copper-Nickel,” will be owned equally by Glencore-backed PolyMet and Teck.
For now, the new joint venture says that they will continue to pursue PolyMet’s planned mine, with a longer-term possibility of adding the Mesaba deposit. Because the copper PolyMet is after is locked in sulfide-bearing ore, getting that copper would require digging up that ore and removing the copper through processing. Disturbing this sulfide-bearing ore – by, for example, digging an open pit mine – creates a type of water pollution called acid mine drainage.
This is a big part of what makes sulfide mining so different from iron and taconite mining. While iron and taconite production have their own pollution problems, iron ore is less reactive, so it does not create the same type of acid mine drainage as sulfide mining. Beyond the fact that sulfide mining is inherently risky, there are specific issues with PolyMet’s proposal that keep many people living downstream of it up at night.
Maybe the most profound is the risk of tailings dam collapse – an event that would release a wall of toxic mining wastewater into the river, through the waters of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, to mix with the just-about-restored waters of the St. Louis River estuary, and finally into Lake Superior.
Google “Video of the tailings dam collapse at Brumadinho” for a look at what might be in store if PolyMet is allowed to proceed with its plans to build a similarly designed upstream-style dam.
Minnesotans are increasingly wise to the risks of allowing multinational mining corporations to set up shop here. So in an effort to flip the script, the industry is leaning hard into a new greenwashing tactic.
It goes like this: not only are foreign mining companies invested in local communities, but they also are deeply concerned with decarbonization, and it’s their duty to deliver Minnesota’s mineral resources to renewable energy markets.
Pay no mind to the fact that Glencore made record profits off coal last year. Don’t worry that Teck was fined $60 million in 2021 by British Columbia court for violations of the Canadian Fisheries Act at one of their coal mines – the largest fine ever levied under that law. Don’t ask questions about what countries and to what buyers PolyMet actually hopes to sell copper. Just hear the nice words – supply chain security, sustainability, clean energy – and trust the mining industry.
As it turns out, we’re a bit wiser than that too. While it’s true that mineral demand for renewable energy is expected to increase, such projections are far from justification for moving ahead with a mining proposal that continually fails to prove its plans would meet safety and engineering standards. When considering the links between mining and renewable energy, it’s revealing to know how mineral supply chains actually work.
The existence of a copper or nickel mine in Minnesota is very much not the same thing as the existence of a domestic clean energy supply chain. In reality, mining companies sell metal concentrates to processing sites abroad, since the U.S. largely lacks such infrastructure. From there, the processed metals are sold into global commodities markets.
This is not a minor hurdle to building out domestic supply chains: constructing processing facilities and restructuring commodities markets would take decades. In the meantime, clean energy producers will innovate away from scarce and problematic inputs in response to high costs and consumer demands. We know this, because it’s already happening.
For the sake of discussion, let’s set these realities aside and consider a situation in which sulfide mining would contribute to domestic renewable energy. In this case, it’s useful to remember why people care about climate action in the first place. The goal of cutting greenhouse gasses is ultimately to avoid the impacts of climate change, which include clean water scarcity, the loss of valued habitats and wildlife, and environmental hazards that harm public health.
To avoid playing a zero-sum game, efforts to reduce emissions must also protect clean water, conserve nature, and keep people healthy. According to its own documents, if built, PolyMet would release at least 16 million gallons of pollution into groundwater per year. Pollution originating from the site would likely surface in downstream wetlands, then mix with the drinking water that downstream communities depend upon, in a time when clean water is growing more scarce.
In addition, the digging of mine pits would directly destroy over 900 acres of mostly peatlands, and dry out thousands more acres nearby. This would release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and mercury into downstream waters. This pollution would flow through the gills of fish that are already struggling to make a comeback amidst legacy pollution and ongoing water quality issues. It would be absorbed by aquatic plants and benthic creatures that are just now enjoying their newly contaminant-free habitat.
The restoration of the St. Louis River shows us that once we sacrifice clean water and healthy ecosystems, it’s a long road to get them back. As we transition to clean energy, opportunities abound to invest in projects and infrastructure that will help society reduce emissions in ways that uphold environmental integrity and improve peoples’ lives.
Proposals like PolyMet are distractions from real climate solutions, like building out material recycling and reuse systems, conserving carbon-rich peatlands, and expanding public transit. Let’s respect the hard work that has already been done to repair the river and estuary from the mistakes of days past.
Let’s finally see beyond the greenwashed promises from extractive industries. And let’s use the clean energy transition as an opportunity to make investments that don’t stick us with future clean-up costs, but rather help us tread on this Earth a bit more lightly.