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2014 Winter Issue 4 (February 7, 2014)

Polymet’s Proposed Mine in Minnesota

February 7, 2014
By Fred Rogers '72

The Boundary Waters are the reason I chose to enroll at Carleton, 45 years ago.  I went canoeing there every year I was a student and have been back many times since.  Living here for the past decade, I have also come to know and love the whole North Shore.  So, I felt compelled to go to the Polymet Mine SDEIS hearing in St. Paul this week.  What are they proposing to do to the BWCA and the northern Minnesota watersheds that I love so much?  I downloaded the entire 2,000 page document from the DNR site, and tried to read sections of it.  Wow, it is hard to follow and figure out.

So, I went to the hearing to see what I could learn and to see if I could understand some other perspectives.   The room was huge – a large conference hall room, flat floor, nearly every seat taken and people standing in all of the doorways and aisles in the St. Paul Riverview Convention Center.  The paper reported 2,000+ people in attendance.  I went in and listened and noticed that the clapping was decidedly divided by pro and con.  It seemed that all of those in favor of the mine were on one side of the room and those opposed were largely on the other side.  After a while, on what turned out to be the ‘con’ side, I went around to find a seat on the other side.

Sitting among the miners, business people and politicians who supported the mine for an hour was an interesting experience.  As the speakers continued on at 3 minutes each, they were nearly alternating in their views of support or opposition.  People around me seemed to agree that the arguments for the mine were these:  

1.    Jobs are very tight in the Range, especially in mining, which has been cut back a lot since the heydays of Taconite mining.

2.    They have tried many alternatives to business development and nothing seems to work.

3.    This proposal involves reopening a previous mine site as the processing plant, and this resonates with many people who see this wasting, vacant site as both an opportunity and a reminder of what once was.  It also seems like a chance to ‘recycle’ the many assets remaining on the site as infrastructure.

4.    The project has been in analysis and discussion for 8 years.  We should trust the DNR and the other agencies to figure out what is needed so that we can restore the jobs that were lost and take advantage of this opportunity in a safe manner.

5.    The watershed that is most impacted is the Partridge River, which flows to Lake Superior, not the BWCA.  The runoff, which will be treated and managed, does not impact the BWCA at all.

6.    Polymet is a big company and they will invest substantial resources in this project and thus create both construction and ongoing operational jobs.

7.    Since we all use electronic products, the mining of copper and nickel are necessary evils of our way of life and it is hypocritical to use these devices and not want to accept the mining it takes to create them.  Wind turbines were cited frequently for the large amount of copper that they require.

8.    Mining has been the backbone of the Range for years.  Early Taconite mining was nearly completely unregulated, and this mine is heavily regulated.  The Taconite mining did not destroy the environment.   We can do this better with less impact.

9.    The supporters of the mine have worked on this project for a long time, answering every question and researching every issue that is raised.  It is time to acknowledge that it is a good idea, that it can be done safely and to let it proceed for the economic benefit of the thousands of people who will be employed or impacted by it.
A lot of the men standing around me were wearing fluorescent vests, and hardhats.  Many had beards.  When a member of the union spoke, they all cheered.  The politicians who spoke in favor, all seemed to refer to this group as ‘the hard-working people of the Range that we represent.’

One of the environmentalist types who spoke against the mine asked everyone to do a 3 minute experiment with him.   He then led the whole room in an exercise of closing your eyes, imagining someone you were sharing the experience of the Range area with today and gradually took this forward to trying to get everyone to imagine a conversation with their great-grand-children about the conditions in 2050.  Everyone around me thought this a bit weird, and I sort of agreed with them.  Not sure that was going to bring the room together.

Then, after an hour among these serious, friendly and sincere people, I went out and around and took a seat among the opponents.  During this entire time of course, people were speaking for and against in three minute intervals, moderated by a pleasant woman who kept reminding everyone to be polite, to let people talk and to hold their signs down so that everyone could see.  The opponents seemed to be younger, more female and dressed casually.  One woman was carrying her baby in a sling.
The arguments against the mine seemed to be these:

1.    The jobs created by the mine would last approximately 20 years.  The water pollution monitoring, treatment and potential cleanup would last 200 – 500 years.

2.    The type of mining proposed to extract copper and nickel is completely different from Taconite mining and the early mining in the Range is not an indication of the impact of this proposal. Moreover, there is no known example of what they call “sulfide mining” which is to say, mining involving large amounts of sulfide rich waste tailings, where the sulfide exposed to the air and water has not resulted in acid runoff and water pollution.

3.    Polymet is a Swiss company, with a terrible track record of environmental compliance around the world in their other mines.  They are already the owner of a tailings pile that is leaching in Minnesota and they have asked for a variance to help alleviate the burden of addressing it.  They are profit motivated and not Minnesotans.

4.    There is no reasonable way that anyone can guarantee a treatment process or funding for ongoing management that will last 200 or more years.

5.    The mine requires the swapping of 7,000 acres of land now under US Forest Service protection, including a large wetlands area, for other less prime areas of land, to enable the mine to use what should be protected land.  Some felt that this was not only undesirable, but potentially illegal and should stop the project for this reason alone.

6.    Many other jobs in the Range area depend upon tourism and outdoor sports, and destroying the watersheds will greatly impact those jobs.  The environmental impact is permanent or very long lasting, as opposed to the relatively short duration of new jobs from the mine.  (see point 1)

7.    The US gets a large proportion of its copper today from recycling.  We should work on increasing recycling, rather than expanding original mineral extraction.

8.    The process is flawed, too short and not addressing the right issues.  A former Deputy Director of the DNR, who had run processes like this for DNR, spoke to this point very forcibly.

The speakers were chosen by drawing cards from a rotating drum.  Apparently 640 people signed up to speak and they ended up choosing about 75, some of whom had left before their name was called.  In the end about 59 people spoke.  Because of this process, many people ‘ceded’ their slot to someone else.  In this way, designated spokespeople were able to speak, without having ‘won the lottery’ on their own.  We heard from two mayors, the presidents of two Chambers of Commerce, the St. Louis county commissioners and several industry spokesmen, including someone from Siemens who mentioned that he had just flown in from Texas where it was also very cold.  (no one was impressed.)   We also heard from the former DNR deputy director, several environmental organizations, environmental science professionals from the Twin Cities and residents of Ely and Duluth who spoke against the project.  (I put my name in but wasn’t called.)

Several college students spoke.  Two from U of M at Morris spoke eloquently against the project.  One from the Twin Cities campus of the U spoke in favor and said that he would like to go out and have a beer with the miners, but he had to wait five months. (he got a laugh)

One of the most tense moments was when someone on the con side said that they were ‘sad to see so many union members here’ and went on to imply that they really didn’t know what they were supporting.  This elicited boos.  The politician who told all of the environmentalists that they were hypocrites for loving their iPhone but not wanting to support mining, held up a paper bag and said that he and the union members would be collecting phones from everyone who wanted to throw theirs away.  This also elicited boos.  The man from Siemens got booed.  Interestingly, no one from Polymet ever spoke.

Why does this matter so much?

The room was filled with emotion much of the night.  Some people were visibly distraught in their testimony, on both sides.  The issue is clearly a core issue for many.  But, for those of us who don’t live on the Range and who go there irregularly, why does it matter so much?  Well, what Polymet is proposing are a new set of technologies, a new expectation of land swaps, and a proposed duration and management problem of immense proportions.  They are also the first to propose this approach to what is admittedly a potentially large and widespread endeavor to recover the precious metals in northern Minnesota.  So, if this mine is approved, there could be a lot more proposals.  That actually raises the stakes for both sides, along the lines of their primary arguments.

In the Star Tribune on January 27, they printed three guest editorials on this subject.  I found the one from the Duluth/Superior Friends Meeting the most poignant and where my heart would end up.  This is a tough choice, but the collective long-term damage doesn’t seem to warrant the hoped for short-term gains.  Some at the hearing even questioned whether Polymet would hire union workers, and it seemed that people just believed this would be so, without a firm agreement.  Who knows?  Polymet didn’t come to say anything… perhaps telling in itself?  I came away believing that this is an important issue and hoping that more people will take the time to really understand what they think and why and then to let the officials and politicians know how they feel.   I don’t support the mine, but I see their point.

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