Sulfide Mining in the Boundary Waters: Jobs vs. Environment

Paul Whyte

The issue of sulfide mining in the Boundary Waters area has been cause for debate for around seven years now. It is no secret that the job market of the United States and in the Northland has been suffering for quite some time and it seems that the mining of ores such as copper and nickel would most certainly create jobs in the Hoyt Lakes area. Mining companies and politicians have shown increased interest in recent years to tap into the resources that lie in the ground of the Boundary Waters, “from day one I have made mining a priority by setting up quarterly meetings with PolyMet and local government officials and working to reduce the government red tape and delays that are keeping hard working Minnesotans from getting back to work. To help move us forward on mining jobs, I passed an amendment that would ensure current mining projects like PolyMet in Hoyt Lakes to complete the permitting process within 30 months. It is time to get these crucial mining projects like PolyMet and Twin Metals up and running,” stated Congressman Chip Cravaak in an interview with The Reader conducted by Mark Jeneson.

This issue has recently emerged due to higher demand for certain metals according to Ian Kimmer, the Communities Director of Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, a group that opposes mining in the area. “They’ve known for over a hundred years that there are things like copper, nickel and gold there. The problem has been getting the minerals out of the ore, the cost benefit hasn’t equated until now. The copper and nickel price was too low to get it out of the ground,” said Kimmer.
Kimmer, among others, feels that there is no way for mining companies to safely extract ores in the area. “Every single sulfide mine in the history of the land, period, has significantly devastated the water table of the area. They sit there, in Hoyt Lakes, at the head waters of the St. Louis river. This pollution, which will happen even in their environmental impact statement, they concede that they’re going to pollute the St. Louis river. It will come out here, it’s going to get into Lake Superior,” stated Kimmer.

Although it seems that mining in the area is inevitable and the ball is rolling on the project, there are questions about how responsibly the mining will be conducted. The difference between sulfide ore and iron ore is that when water and air comes in contact with iron ore, rust is created, but the waste of sulfide ore creates sulfuric acid. “There’s the example of the Blackfoot River in Montana. There’s a stretch of the river that’s entirely dead,” said Kimmer. In a report released from the United States Department of Agriculture in the year 2000 concerning the Elkhorn and Charter Oak mines that seeped waste into the Blackfoot River in Montana, “acid mine drainage (AMD) from abandoned mines degrades streams and riparian areas and may harm fish and wildlife. Plugging mine openings to eliminate or reduce the flow of AMD has had only limited success. Expensive water treatment plants that require power and frequent maintenance are not feasible for abandoned mine sites on remote lands managed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Forest Service.”

According to Kimmer the problem with abandoned mines is that companies claim bankruptcy when they have used up the available resources leaving agencies such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture figuring out what to do. In the end, tax payers hold the bill for the damage. “A lot of times in this debate you’ll hear mining companies say that they have ‘new technology.’ What they’re really talking about is not new technology to protect the environment, they’re talking about that they now have the technology to profitably extract minerals from the ore body,” said Kimmer.
Although the companies claim bankruptcy, there are other companies that invest in and back up companies such as PolyMet. In the case of PolyMet, it is backed by Glencore International that is based in Switzerland. “Glencore will also be able to exchange approximately US $28.2 million in debentures into an additional 7,053,445 PolyMet shares,” states an online 2011 report from Glencore.

What is concerning about PolyMet being backed by Glencore is that Glencore hired on former BP CEO, Tony Hayward, to oversee it’s environmental safety duties. Hayward was the environmental safety advisor for BP and lost his job after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that occurred in the Gulf Coast in 2010. “This is the guy who’s responsible for the deaths of 13 employees on his watch and the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe. You don’t hire Tony Hayward if you’re interested in environmental safety, you hire Tony Hayward if you’re interested in getting around environmental safety as much as possible, he’s an expert at that,” said Kimmer.

Whenever resources are extracted from the earth, companies must submit and environmental impact statement that is reviewed by the Environmental Protection Agency; it is essentially a trial where there are endless appeals. “When the EPA does this and fails them, they have a chance to improve the application, to develop it and show that they can engineer their way around the environmental consequences. That’s what they’re trying to do right now but they can’t get the environmental modeling to show that they’re not going to significantly devastate the water shed,” said Kimmer. This process is what Congressman Cravaak refers to as “red tape and delays.”

As with any trial, the defendant is entitled to a lawyer, someone who will argue the case in the best possible light. In the case of PolyMet, in a September 2012 report on their website they announced that they have hired on Foth Infrastructure & Environment. “I am very excited to have Foth join our permitting team,” said Jon Cherry, president and CEO of PolyMet on their online report. “Foth’s key role is to provide strategic advice related to securing the permits necessary to construct and operate the NorthMet Project in an environmentally sound manner, as well as to ensure appropriate quality of permit submittals.” “Foth is very pleased to be working on this high quality copper-nickel project in the Midwest. I am confident that the successful permitting experiences we have had on these types of mines, combined with the historic and ongoing experience of Barr Engineering, will bring the PolyMet permits across the finish line,” said Steve Donohue, Director at Foth.

Members of the community have stepped up to create awareness about this issue. At the time this was written, several Lake County residents are embarked on a canoe journey and making stops along the way to discuss sulfide mining. The small group known as the Precious Waters Flotilla consists of four paddlers, two dogs and two canoes. They cast off on September 21 down the St. Louis River in Forbes, Minn and are making their way down to the State Capitol in St. Paul. They will arrive in St. Paul on October 20 and will have a rally on the Capitol lawn on October 22 at 3 p.m. Their next proposed stops will be at Crosby on October 2 at Black Dog Bar and Grille and October 6 in Brainerd at Lum Park. “We need to consider the many existing jobs that depend on natural resources, and what might happen if those resources are compromised by copper sulfide mining. I wonder if the Twin Metals project specifically might not destroy more jobs than it creates. As paddler Elli King says, ‘we are for the water and the people, jobs and the environment, we can have both,’” stated Precious Waters Flotilla’s media relations person, Melinda Suelflow, in an email about the balance between jobs and environment.

In the Twin Ports there will be a screening of the 1999 film “Pickaxe: The Cascadia Free State Story” on Thursday, October 4 at Zinema 2, which details the story of activists who made a stand against old growth forest logging at Warner Creek in the Willamette National Forest of Oregon, blockading the logging road and repelling State Police. The video alleges many abuses of the environment by the logging industry including arson; fire damaged timber is easier to gain permits to remove and much less costly than undamaged forests. There is a $7 suggested donation and proceeds will go to the theater and the Precious Waters Flotilla. There will be a discussion before and after the film which will begin at 6:30 p.m.

In the end it is important to realize that these ores are not infinite in quantity. Although there may be jobs created from mining in this area, they will only be around as long as the resource lasts. The question that remains is how many jobs created will make it worth the damage? Keep in mind that tax payers may have to pay for much of the cleanup and long lasting effects of this mining. The downside to this is that once the mines run out, people will move out, leaving a small group of tax payers in the region paying for the “good years.” If the area that mostly is now beautiful and untainted from sulfuric acid already has a sparse population and job opporunities, what will the population be like after the lakes, ecosystem and sulfide mining industry run out?  When looking at a satellite image of the surrounding areas of Lake Superior after the June 2012 flood, it seems fairly obvious where all the water ultimately leads. Minnesota is known as the “Land of 10,000 Lakes,” each body of water is somehow tied into the next and every living thing up here is likewise tied into each body of water.