To Mine or Not to Mine?

Native copper. Image by Jonathan Zander, Wikimedia.

Native copper. Image by Jonathan Zander, Wikimedia.

That was the question I pondered along with about 1,500 other people and lots of rent-a-cops at a public meeting in Duluth last week. The project up for comments is an open-pit copper-nickel mine (a.k.a. sulfide mine) farther north near Ely, Minn., on the border of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. I have followed the development of this Polymet Corp. project for several (five?) years, trying to learn as much as I can to make informed comments as a concerned member of the community.

True to my blog’s name, this post is going to meander quite a bit as I try to gather my thoughts, so please bear with me. The problem is that copper sulfide mining has never been done successfully (from an environmental standpoint) in the U.S. These mines have a bad track record of long-lasting pollution. Even with all the new technologies the mining company proposes using with it, this mine will require 200-500 years of water treatment once its 20 years of life is over.

I was heartened to see so many people involved in the public meeting. It was well-organized and moderated. As is typical for public meetings about contentious issues, the open house portion of the meeting was designed to divide up the audience. The organizers provided tables staffed by people conversant in different specialties such as air quality, water quality, mercury, and wetlands. I had questions about how the acid-rain producing gasses from the waste rock were going to be handled, and ended up having conversations at four tables. I spoke with a consultant at the water quality table, who referred me for more information to the air quality table. They couldn’t answer my question, so referred me to the Polymet table. I also stopped at the “cultural resources” table (which was really the tribal table) just because I knew the people staffing it.

The public comment period followed, with everyone filling up a huge ballroom of the conference center. Guidelines for giving verbal comments were clearly spelled out in the meeting packet, and speakers (whose names were drawn at random) were given three minutes to say their piece. Groups of mining supporters in the audience sported royal blue round stickers (curiously, the same color as the Polymet staffers’ polo shirts), and environmental supporters wore round green stickers.

The thoughtfulness and thoroughness of people’s comments impressed me, as did the polite applause following each talk, no matter what viewpoint the speaker espoused. I heard that the applause got rowdier as the hours-long comment period progressed, but I had a dog to let out back at home, so I didn’t stay for the whole thing.

This is the mining company’s second try at an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). The Draft EIS they released in 2009 was deemed inadequate by the state and federal agencies involved, so they issued a Supplemental Draft EIS. This version addresses some water quality concerns and waste tailings disposal issues. It also adds a necessary land exchange with the Superior National Forest, since the mine will impact National Forest lands.

If this EIS gets shot down, I’m not sure if the Polymet Corp. will get another do-over or not. What would that be called, I wonder – an Additional Supplemental Draft EIS? (Grin.)

But I have a feeling that even if the mining companies are required to add more details before the project can begin, they will complain, but they will do it. There’s a lot of money and profit riding on this project. And it’s not just this one mine – several others are in line behind it. The corporations are salivating over this copper-nickel vein, which is one of the richest untapped sources around.

As the Polymet project stands now, the mining company wants to use northern Minnesota as a guinea pig for some new techniques. Call me selfish, but I’d rather they practiced their techniques somewhere else first and proved them effective before using them here. The natural environment in that part of Minnesota is the most precious thing we have. It’s what gives the BWCA Wilderness the status of the most-visited wilderness in the lower 48 states. And this is not your grandpa’s iron ore mine — the type of pollution sulfide mines can produce is orders of magnitude different than the types an iron ore mine can produce, and this mine would be right near the wilderness.

I think that 500 years of maintenance for 20 years of jobs is too steep a price to pay for some copper. I thought it when I first heard about the project, and even with all the research and listening I’ve done that remains unchanged. Yes, I know that copper is vital for the functioning of society. Heck, I’m writing this on a computer, which I assume must have copper in it somewhere. But if we can’t extract copper without having to clean up the pollution from the operation for five centuries afterwards, maybe now is not the right time to be doing it. Maybe we should wait until mining methods improve enough that a legacy of pollution is not what’s left once the project is done.

Although the people I spoke with at the open house tables were all respectful and knowledgeable, I must admit, I trusted the folks at the tribal table the most. They are the ones that have the land and the environment as their number one priority. They are not pulled in as many competing directions as are the agency and corporate staffers.

The tribal comments are contained in Chapter 8 of the Supplemental EIS in a section reserved for “major differences of opinion.” One (of several) issues they raise is that an underground mining operation was not adequately considered. If the operation was kept totally underground, it would eliminate the impact to wetlands and surface waters, and it could limit the sulfide gas (acid-rain-producing) emissions from the site. The tribes argue that underground mining is technically feasible, “leaving only the lack of economic feasibility as the rationale used by the co-lead agencies to eliminate the alternative.”

I found the response by the co-lead agencies about underground mining arrogantly dismissive, and it backs up the tribal complaint: “The co-lead agencies believe that adequate consideration was given to the Underground Mining Alternative prior to eliminating it from further consideration . . . . “ Although they concede that an underground mine would offer “certain environmental benefits,” they contend that the “tonnage/volume and grade (amount of metals) of rock would not generate enough revenue to pay for all the costs associated with underground mining. Therefore, underground mining would not be economically feasible.”

But they offer no numbers. If I was grading this response on a school test paper, I would give it a “D” for “not showing your work.” I guess we’re just supposed to trust them on this. NOT. They also did not do a good job of “showing their work” on the details for the perpetual water treatment system that would need to be put into place.

Would Polymet find a way to make an underground mine feasible if that was the only alternative? I suspect so. If this copper mine is going to happen now with the technologies we have, this is the only alternative I would support, but this EIS gives no adequate justification for not taking that route other than “it costs too much.” I fear it will cost society and the environment too much if we don’t pursue an underground mine. Please, Minnesota Dept. of Natural Resources, send Polymet back to the drawing board!