PolyMet’s 500-Year Acid Mine Drainage

John LaForge

After visiting the small Eagle Mine in upper Michigan, Governor Mark Dayton said Oct. 30 that if the giant PolyMet copper-nickel sulfide mine is eventually permitted, Minnesota should demand “a rigorous system of community oversight” like the one in Mich.
Michigan has mandated a $300,000 annual tax on Eagle Mine’s owners to pay for independent water testing.

But Eagle Mine is small -- 100 times smaller than the proposed PolyMet open pit behemoth. Eagle Mine is not a sulfide deposit either. PolyMet’s dirty copper-nickel, gold, platinum, and palladium mine could produce a permanent stream of water pollution known as acid mine drainage. PolyMet’s own waste water modeling initially called it a 500-year-long possibility. I call that permanent.

Perhaps Gov. Dayton understands the gravity of the differences between Eagle and PolyMet, because his recommendation that we “should demand the same as Michigan” would require -- all else being equal -- a $30 million-per-year tax on PolyMet (100 times $300,000 a year) -- to be used for independent ground- and surface-water monitoring. Gov. Dayton told reporters that Minnesota should study Michigan’s requirements “and fill in any ‘gaps’ in Minnesota’s statutes.” But this $30 million gap isn’t the half of it.

Dayton’s highly honorable suggestion, if adopted, means that PolyMet needs to budget $15 billion for what it has said would be a 500-year monitoring era. PolyMet’s early analysis said acid mine pollution would be a serious problem even after 500 years (500 times $30 million/year, equals $15 billion).

Unfortunately, the Nov. 6 Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) includes no such recommendation and acknowledges no such responsibility. Instead the FEIS dodges, confuses or obfuscates the 58,000 mostly critical public comments submitted regarding the mine’s risks and endangerment. Between 95% and 98% of the 58,000 comments opposed the mine.

Formal comments, like those from the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, Friends of the Boundary Waters, Water Legacy, Mining Truth, and others, were rigorous, detailed, comprehensive, and devastating to PolyMet. Attorney Paula Maccabee of Water Legacy told me Nov. 10, “We thought our comments would be taken seriously, that they would change the project and improve the requirements. But no. PolyMet just reworded the same project.”  

Questions demanding answers:

• Will PolyMet be legally bound to clean up acid mine drainage for 500 years? This 500-year show-stopper raised so many red flags during the public comment period that PolyMet made sure it never appeared in the FEIS. Instead, the company and DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr use the term “indefinitely.” How ban PolyMet be forced to prevent pollution “indefinitely”?

• Why has there been no independent water modeling required in the environmental review process? Critics point out that all the data and analysis of how much polluted water could drain from the mine site and the tailings site has come from PolyMet.

• As Water Legacy notes, “Across the country, there is no example where a sulfide mine has been operated and closed without polluting surface and/or groundwater with acid mine drainage, sulfuric acid and/or toxic metals.” Why has PolyMet been allowed to submit a shabbily supported environmental review based on unsubstantiated claims and faulty data?

• The FEIS concludes that it’s “unlikely” acid mine drainage will move north into the pristine Boundary Waters Wilderness, but that if the permanent pollution does flow north (permanently), PolyMet will “fill cracks in the bedrock.” Why is the potential devastation of the Boundary Waters, an otherwise highly-protected national wilderness treasured because of its lack of pollution, allowed to be brushed off with such fatuous gibberish?

I’m sure I’m not the first person to howl at that concept of “filling cracks in the bedrock.” The idea sounds like bovine excrement, or like the unworkable “ice wall” being built in Japan to slow groundwater flowing through Fukushima’s three melted reactors.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s mandate is to, “monitor environmental quality and enforce environmental regulations. … and to work “to prevent pollution.” But in 2005, when the Army Corps of Engineers published notice of PolyMet’s application for a permit to dredge, fill and alter wetlands for the mine, MPCA failed to exercise its right to review the project under Section 401 of the Clean Water Act. So much for preventing pollution.

Attorney Paula Maccabee at Water Legacy didn’t take this irresponsibility lightly. This summer, the group petitioned the US EPA, demanding that it strip Minnesota agencies and lawmakers of their authority to regulate mining water pollution. The group argues, under federal Clean Water Act regulations, that gross conflicts of interest and corruption of the legislative process make actual pollution control impossible, “due to undue influence of the mining industry on Minnesota regulators and politicians.”  The petition notes that the legislature recently prohibited MPCA from enforcing Minnesota’s wild rice sulfate standard or listing wild rice impaired waters.

Marshall Helmberger, writing in the Timberjay, says, “What Water Legacy’s petition lays bare is a case of the industry setting its own rules, essentially regulating the actions of Minnesota state government, rather than the other way around. Minnesota’s reputation for strong environmental laws is a paper tiger.”

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