PolyMet, Twin Metals, and Credibility Deficit

Carla Arneson

PolyMet’s strategy to gain support for the first proposed sulfide mine in Minnesota lacked credibility from the beginning. Those involved with the proposed NorthMet project told us repeatedly that it was going to be a “safe” mine; then they said the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) would prove it is a “safe” project; then they basically flunked the DEIS with the lowest rating possible; so they quickly claimed ‘flunking’ was just part of a process to work out the kinks.

Throughout all of this tap dancing rhetoric we continued to hear that the Platsol process is the key to PolyMet’s supposedly “safe” project. Even though company officials have yet to tell us where, or if, Platsol has been used successfully on a real world full-scale mine. Even though they know that Platsol is just one part of a conventional process that has been in use since the 1970’s. Even though they know that the toxic waste would still be going to the leaking tailings basin before they use Platsol to treat the PGM sulfide flotation concentrates.

Platsol may make the mining of a large disseminated ore body economically feasible for a mining company, but it is a scam when it comes to protecting our waters. The Platsol plan is to turn Minnesota’s waters into a giant sulfide-mining test tube.

As if that was not enough, the sulfide mining companies in Minnesota continue to bring partners and consultants on board who do little to inspire confidence. PolyMet partnered with Glencore whose background is purportedly as shady as it can get –its connection to Tony Hayward of BP fame an added touch. Twin Metals brought URS on board, the company that inspected the 35W bridge before it collapsed. Then it hired Bechtel, whose reported reputation of environmental and human rights abuses, including in Iraq, may well surpass Glencore’s lofty record.

It makes one think that the PolyMet and Twin Metals corporative folks must consider Minnesotans just a tad dim.
Sulfide mining corporations miscalculated

Minnesotans love for their lakes

Things have been heating up in northern Minnesota. Resolutions for prove-it-first legislation passed in precincts throughout Cook, Lake, and St. Louis Counties. It is important to point out that these resolutions refute what some mistakenly reported – that the debate over a prove-it-first resolution at the Minnesota Democratic Convention was evidence of a divide between Twin City and northern Minnesota delegates. Not so. The call for a resolution was and is coming from the north. Our northern legislators have just not caught on to the rapidly growing pro-water sentiment in the Arrowhead. Choosing a sulfide-mining district over a lake district is sounding like a bad deal; a losing deal.

So what does PolyMet do next? It decides to bring in Jon Cherry as its new president and CEO. For PolyMet, there seems to be a correlation between a dropping stock price and action.

According to PolyMet’s press release, Jon Cherry is a “recognized leader in mining environmental policy.” It is an odd way to put it, as if one mines environmental policy as well as metals. So far, I haven’t found anything remotely resembling recognition for his environmental policy, mining or otherwise, except a close career relationship with arguably the worst mining company on the planet, Rio Tinto.

Racing the devil

Cherry comes to Minnesota from the proposed Resolution Copper mine down in Arizona, about as controversial a mine proposal as one gets – even Republicans and miners are against the project.

Of course there was this itsy bitsy problem of credibility. Seems Resolution Copper (Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton) basically lied to people in the area about something as minor as where it was planning to put its tailings. While it promoted one site, it never mentioned behind-the-scenes company dealings to acquire state land where it really wanted the tailings waste to go. Took a Freedom of Information Act request to ferret out the details.

Nor did the company mention that it was using the name ”Integrity Land and Cattle” to “obtain permits to study the area.” “Integrity” is an ironic choice of a name to hide behind.

At a March meeting with residents, according to The High Country News, officials were “ambushed:” “When Resolution Copper Company Vice President Jon Cherry described the proposed plans for a tailings dump at the old strip mine, Queen Valley real estate agent and golf shop manager Leslie Bryant raised her hand: And what about the state land site? Cherry appeared taken aback, then acknowledged that site was also being studied. If Resolution did buy state land, he added, some of the money would go to a school trust fund.” "We're very transparent." (Cherry is also very fast on his feet).

Whereupon Arizona Mining Reform Coalition leader Roger Featherstone pointedly asked: “Then why did Resolution hide behind a different name?”

Hiding information without regard for the public’s right to know has been common practice for Rio Tinto, including its U.S. subsidiaries.  

In Utah, Rio TInto’s Kennecott Utah Copper managed to hide its nasty secret for decades, including during the years that Cherry was employed there. In the plausible event of an earthquake, Utah Copper’s tailings dam was in danger of collapsing, wiping out more than two hundred homes with a deluge of mining waste sludge. Rio Tinto callously figured out its liability, including a loss of life cost with children valued differently than adults. Aided and abetted by state regulators, the company kept its some-would-argue criminal secret and quietly started buying up homes (later resold with no disclosure) while it secretly worked on shoring up its dam year after year after year. Breaking the story in 2008, the Salt Lake Tribune called it, “Racing the devil.”

Follow the record

That same year Norway divested itself of an $890 million Rio Tinto stake in its pension fund, citing lack of ethics and the severity of environmental and human rights violations by Rio Tinto, particularly at its Grasberg Mine in Indonesia. Once unethical behavior is accepted, it becomes pervasive throughout a company, throughout an industry. And we are naïve at best not to recognize it.

PolyMet representatives keep saying that we need to mine metals in Minnesota instead of in countries that do not have the same regulations, blaming the victims of mining companies instead of holding those companies accountable for their unethical and criminal behavior. Hiring a career employee of Rio Tinto to be the president of PolyMet is another indication of just how transparently false such rhetoric is.   

The latest news on Rio Tinto comes from London, where the mining giant is in trouble with officials of the upcoming Olympics. Seems Rio Tinto snuck by without the “auditing and certification requirements” that are required of a supplier of metal for the Olympic medals. Their record would likely have disqualified the corporation. "For years, credible organizations have reported environmental damage and human rights violations by Rio Tinto in its operations around the world.” (Ken Neumann, Canadian Director of the United Steelworkers union) Rio Tinto has also ticked off the United Steelworkers union.

In Michigan, Rio Tinto’s Kennecott Eagle Minerals nickel-copper mine, with Cherry as its project manager, followed in Rio Tinto’s violation footsteps, trampling the law and the rights of indigenous people. The Keweenaw Bay Indian Community of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula appealed to the United Nations concerning violations.

Judge Richard Patterson’s ruling recommended that the Eagle Mine permit be allowed, "with the exception that provision be made to avoid direct impacts to Eagle Rock that may interfere with the (Native American) religious practices thereon." It was up to Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) Director Steven Chester to make the final decision; he “could affirm the permits, change the permits or deny them.” (The Mining Journal) Director Chester asked Judge Patterson for additional clarification concerning Eagle Rock while he was considering his decision.
Then Director Steven Chester decided to resign.

The DEQ was to be dissolved shortly so it had to work fast. It believed it could ignore Patterson’s ruling because, as it informed the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, the DEQ decided in its infinite wisdom that a place of worship could only be a building.

Then the DEQ bypassed its interim director and without waiting to be under the direction of its new agency, basically handed the application to a senior policy advisor who made the decision to permit the mine. Two days later the DEQ was no more, morphing into the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and the Environment – with a director who could have handled the Eagle Mine permit.

Faked results, a makeover, and rewritten laws

The Eagle Mine also failed an independent technical review titled, “Crown Pillar Subsidence and Hydrologic Stability Assessment,” done by the Itasca Consulting Group, Inc. “The analysis techniques used to assess the crown pillar stability of Eagle Mine do not reflect industry best-practice. In addition, the hydrologic stability of the crown pillar has not been considered. Therefore, the conclusions made within the Eagle Project Mining Permit Application regarding subsidence are not considered to be defensible.” Meaning the mine could fall in on itself.

According to The Mining Journal Cherry said, "our highest priority is the safety of our workers, especially those who will be working underground in the mine. This priority means the structural integrity of the mine has been a primary engineering focus.”

An independent expert on rock mechanics, Jack Parker, who “contends testing was faulty and either done with incompetence or intentional deception to favor the proposed design,” bluntly said, “They've faked the results to get something that they like.” (The Mining Journal)

The Eagle Mine travesty has been given a makeover by the mining industry. In 2010, when Cherry went to work for Arizona’s proposed Resolution mine as its new vice president for environmental, legal, and external relations (a conflicted combination) he was introduced as follows: “Jon helped rewrite a Michigan state mining law, got a new mine there permitted, and then won three years of lawsuits to get the new mine to its construction phase.” The president and CEO of Resolution, David Salisbury, then said, “I’m very confident he’ll be able to do the same thing here.” (The Superior Sun)

So, a mining company general manager gets to help rewrite state mining law in Michigan. Mining companies are also trying to rewrite mining laws in Minnesota and Wisconsin; “rewrite” meaning weaken a law, not make it more protective of our waters. In Minnesota, mining companies already do their own water testing, and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has to call ahead when it comes to check, safety issues being the guise.

Timing is everything

When he took the Arizona job in 2010 Cherry was slated to be the successor to
Resolution’s CEO David Salisbury, with Salisbury looking to retire. According to a Resolution spokesperson, Cherry is president of Resolution. He remains president until July 15th, and then becomes president of PolyMet on the 16th. Interesting timing. Interesting choice. Especially after Cherry was quoted in The Superior Sun a scant two years ago, that since he was originally from Montana “he was happy to be back out west.” It was a quick turn-around. Going from a job with Rio Tinto to a job at PolyMet would not be considered a step up in the mining world.

Perhaps Cherry is on a mission to help rewrite a Minnesota state mining law.

After all Cherry said, “I am excited to join PolyMet … I am confident that we will build and operate a project that meets state and federal environmental standards…” (PolyMet Press Release) Minnesota may want to ask, “How?”

Perhaps Rio Tinto wants to be the big player in Minnesota and Cherry is its front man.

I am speculating, just like mining companies speculate. Arizona’s Resolution Mine is described as: ”The $6 billion mining project near Superior, is the third-largest undeveloped copper resource in the world and the largest and most accessible ore body in North America.” Sounds like it could be a description for Minnesota. Does the industry have a playbook of key phrases it uses for every mine they want to sell to the public? By the way unions, the proposed Resolution Mine would be using “robots,” in case you have any doubts about whether the industry is becoming automated.

At the recent Minnesota Executive Council hearing concerning mineral lease sales, Philip Larson, Agate Lake Resources, said he had just optioned his leases to “a company with the financial and technical resources to take evaluation of the project to the next step.” And he said, “In doing so we were able to attract hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of dollars in investment to the state.” During the Executive Council hearing Larson never mentioned that he is not just the managing partner of a “grassroots” exploratory company, but also the senior geologist at Duluth Metals; nor did he mention who it was that optioned his leases. Twin Metals? Teck Cominco? Rio Tinto/Kennecott? Or? Does the public have a right to know?

And because Twin Metals has proclaimed its resources have “doubled” this would be a good time to highlight the last portion of the “cautionary note to investors” accompanying, The New Twin Metals Minnesota Interim Resource Estimate, June 2012: ‘As a result, United States investors are cautioned not to assume that all or any part of an “Inferred Mineral Resource” exists, or is economically or legally mineable. Investors are also cautioned not to assume that all or any part of “Measured” or “Indicated Mineral Resources” will ever be converted into “Mineral Reserves” (being the economically mineable part of an “Indicated” or “Measured” Mineral Resource).’

The buzzards are waiting in Minnesota

In Arizona, Cherry reportedly said, “I’m very proud to work for a company like Rio Tinto that spends the money to do it right … part of the reason I’m still here, Rio Tinto gets it.” (The Superior Sun) “Get’s it?” Now there is a scary declaration for Minnesota’s future. There is plenty of evidence worldwide of just how well Rio Tinto “Get’s it.”

Recently PolyMet’s representatives have noticeably been trying to convince us that Rio Tinto’s Kennecott Flambeau Mining Company (FMC) copper mine in Ladysmith, Wisconsin has been successfully reclaimed. Even though the site is contaminating water.

Perhaps the repeated references to Flambeau by Minnesota’s sulfide-mining proponents were intended as an odd sort of introduction to Cherry who was quoted as saying, "What we saw in Ladysmith is that an area can be mined without causing negative affects on the (nearby) Flambeau River and then be successfully restored.” (MIRS News) Cherry was speaking as Kennecott’s representative.

To Rio Tinto/Kennecott the definition of “successfully restored,” especially at the Flambeau mine, is that only certain waters count – like saying only certain parts of a cancerous tumor count when the surgeon removes it. Oops, missed that piece – but it doesn’t count.

Again information obtained through a Freedom Of Information Act showed the truth. And there was one piece of information that should resonate with Minnesotans, since we already have severely elevated levels of manganese, a neurotoxin, in wells at PolyMet. At Flambeau: “The established drinking water standard for manganese is 50 parts per billion (ppb); Kennecott predicted that manganese levels at the Flambeau Mine site would rise to 520 ppb (due to acid mine drainage); but in reality, manganese levels measured in a monitoring well within the backfilled pit have reached 42,000 ppb (80 times worse than predicted). Furthermore, Kennecott predicted that the manganese levels will remain elevated for over 4,000 years.” (Laura Furtman)

“The data shows that runoff from the Flambeau Mine is in violation of applicable surface water quality standards and is illegally polluting a nearby stream and the Flambeau River. The data also shows that groundwater at the mine site is polluted and, at a minimum, requires expanded monitoring. However, the DNR has failed to properly regulate FMC and has, instead, allowed the company to violate the law and portray the Flambeau Mine as an environmental success story when it is not.” (Glenn Stoddard, attorney, Wisconsin Resources Protection Council)

Does lack of enforcement sound familiar to anyone in Minnesota?

Minnesota also has a new “streamlining” law. According to Northland’s News Center, “Iron Range Resource and Rehabilitation Board Commissioner Tony Sertich says Governor Dayton's new law isn't an attempt to circumvent environmental safety but a move to simply streamline the important process.” Sertich continued, "Making sure we move in a quick way but that still values the laws of the environmental regulations that are in place... I think we can do both.”

When “we” have not been able to do both with taconite mining, illustrated by the hundreds of violations, and variances, it is disingenuous if not outright fabrication to say we can do both with sulfide mining. The Duluth Complex is a far different ore body – a sulfide bearing ore body.

Minnesota, brace yourself, for as the title of Laura Furtman’s book outlining the Flambeau Mine debacle stated, “The Buzzards Have Landed!” In Minnesota, they are waiting impatiently to feed off our water, our health, and our true sustainable resources.