When it comes to sulfide mining, let’s use ‘pro-water’ and ‘anti-water’ to describe stances

Carla Arneson

CC/Flickr/ccarlstead Montana’s Berkeley Pit is the largest Superfund site in the nation. Is that what we want for Minnesota?
CC/Flickr/ccarlstead Montana’s Berkeley Pit is the largest Superfund site in the nation. Is that what we want for Minnesota?

No one promoting sulfide mining in Minnesota can say they are pro-clean water, not when the reality of sulfide mining is perpetual water pollution.

Articles continually refer to supporters of sulfide mining as pro-mining, pro-labor, and pro-union, but when Minnesotans – Republicans and Democrats alike – are supporters of our waters, they are termed anti-mining and anti-jobs.

It is time for reciprocation – to give equal standing to our waters – by saying those who defend our waters are “pro-water.” Those who would attack our waters by allowing sulfide mining in Minnesota’s premier lake district are “anti-water.”

Anti-water U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan is a prime example. Nolan attacked the U.S. Forest Service for not renewing Antofagasta’s (aka Twin Metals’) expired mineral leases, and for initiating a two-year review of the impacts of sulfide mining to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA). Nolan asked the Trump administration to halt the review, while vehemently stating, “Make no mistake, this is an anti-mining tactic and waste of taxpayer dollars.”

No, Rep. Nolan, it is defending and protecting Minnesota’s waters. Pro-water.

Anti-water Republicans have also recently written to the Trump administration, asking Trump to clear the way so that Chilean mining giant Antofagasta can have the opportunity – after PolyMet – to pollute Minnesota’s waters for perpetuity. These Republican legislators, led by State Rep. Kurt Daudt, were already well aware that PolyMet (owned by Glencore) would require perpetual water treatment. PolyMet’s Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) started out with water treatment “for perpetuity,” and ended up with water treatment “indefinitely” in its Final EIS.

The meaning is the same: water treatment forever.

Antofagasta would be no different; and other than the name, there is no Twin Metals, only sole-owner Antofagasta. Duluth Metals is long gone from the twin-ship — except for the lingering, and telling, rhetoric.

In 2009, the then president of Duluth Metals, Rick Sandri, plainly stated the sulfide-mining industry’s intent. As Sandri declared, “PolyMet is the snowplow, and Duluth Metals is the car behind the plow” (MPR). In 2017, Antofagasta is the car behind the plow that is clearing the way for the rest of the mines, a polluting sulfide-mining complex that would spread across northeastern Minnesota’s water complex.

The reality

For those having trouble grasping what the sulfide mining industry is demanding from Minnesota, understand that billions of gallons of our waters would continue to be polluted for keeps, thus needing water treatment for keeps. Perpetual water treatment was not the answer; it is the necessity. We will have no choice.

Understand that Antofagasta has run out of water in Chile and is coming after ours. Desalinating seawater is expensive; ours is virtually free. And, if the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) enforcement is any indication, free to pollute as well.

Understand that Antofagasta’s proposed underground sulfide mine would morph into an open pit. At the old INCO test pit area – a portage away from the BWCA – the first 1,000 feet of Antofagasta’s resource contains as much low-grade metal content as its resource below 1,000 feet. Antofagasta is not planning on leaving mineable resources in the ground. Instead, sooner or later it would play the “jobs” card, and DNR Land and Minerals would happily oblige, dragging the rest of the Department of Natural Resources along to give Antofagasta its open pit.

Eventually, when Antofagasta has sold out and whatever mining company still operating goes bankrupt, or when the resource is depleted, someone will shut off the dewatering pumps. The mineshafts will flood and the pit will fill up with toxic waters that will turn increasingly toxic over time. Financial assurance will make little to no difference when pollution cannot be cleaned up.

Think that is a fantasy scenario? Think again. That is exactly what happened at the Berkeley Pit in Montana. Pumps were shut off, shafts flooded, the pit filled up with toxic water that increased in toxicity; the water became so toxic that when thousands of snow geese landed on the pit in November 2016, and drank the water, they died. The geese that lived long enough to fly away died somewhere else, so the death toll will never be accurately reported. 

Minnesota’s own nightmare

The Berkeley Pit is a Superfund site, the largest in the nation. The pit’s toxic waters are now in danger of flowing into the surrounding groundwater. Is a Berkeley Pit, our own toxic version, what we want for Minnesota — Minnesota’s own nightmare?

Take PolyMet. PolyMet’s East Pit wall would expose the mineralized high-sulfur Virginia Formation. PolyMet’s most reactive waste rock would eventually be placed under water in the East Pit, where toxic pollution would still increase as oxygen is introduced and galvanic interactions occur. The DNR has no plan in place if or when PolyMet’s pit waters turn deadly. As for an overflowing pit, the plan is to let it run over.

PolyMet’s combined East and Central pits would overflow to the West Pit; the West Pit overflow (water treatment ill-defined) would ultimately end up in the Partridge River, a tributary to the St. Louis River, to Lake Superior.

Until recently, Minnesota Rules covered nondegradation of surface water and groundwater quality as part of the permit process. Then the MPCA removed protection of groundwater, so that permits for mining pollution would not have to consider whether high quality groundwater is being degraded. ‘Deleted’ our aquifers — despite the fact that northeastern Minnesota’s surface water and groundwater is inextricably linked. 

First, Minnesota’s sulfate standard was gutted by the Legislature and the MPCA; then the MPCA weakened Minnesota Rules.  It was exactly what the sulfide mining industry wanted and needed. Pollution impunity.

Of global polluters currently in Minnesota, Glencore, Antofagasta, Rio Tinto/Kennecott and Teck, Teck holds the largest sulfide deposit. Nolan and Daudt need to consider what a sulfide mining industrial district would do to Minnesota’s waters, to the life within those waters and to the life that depends on those waters, including us.

Daudt has apparently forgotten that proposed sulfide mining in Minnesota is an issue affecting all Minnesotans. The buzzwords in his Jan. 23 letter to the Trump administration, “responsibly develop our natural resources,” are unadulterated subterfuge. Unless he equates “responsibly develop” with perpetually pollute.

If Daudt, as speaker of the House, while also representing the Minnesota House Republican Caucus, wants to send a letter to the Trump administration – essentially lobbying for the sulfide mining industry – he had better ask the people of Minnesota what they want before he writes it. The waters of Minnesota belong to all of us; they are not the property of the speaker of the House. The Minnesota House of Representatives supposedly represents all the people of Minnesota.

U.S. Rep. Nolan, take note. Before you promote sulfide mining in the headwaters of our nation’s greatest water resources, ask whether the people of Minnesota and the nation want to allow never-ending sulfide mining pollution in watersheds that flow to Lake Superior, the BWCA, and Voyageurs National Park.

The world is literally dying for water, yet there are those who would promote and facilitate the destruction of Minnesota’s incomparable, clean waters. Indefensible.