Wake up Minnesota, your babies are crying

More than wild rice is being harmed.

Carla  Arneson

Ironically, since sulfate had nothing to do with current shutdowns, the Natural Resources Research Institute (NRRI) 2014 Semi-Annual Report stated, “A new, low-cost sulfate remediation technology is needed immediately to avoid the potential shut-down of taconite operations in the State of Minnesota. The Minnesota Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board (IRRRB) is offering $125,000 in matching funds to NRRI to create this project, along with in-kind support from both Cliffs Natural Resources (NR) and Polymet Mining.”

Excuse me? PolyMet already claims reverse osmosis works like a charm. The taconite industry ought to be well on its way to cleaning up its mess by now. But then, Minntac claims there is “no way to treat” its toxic waste from reverse osmosis. https://www.minnpost.com/environment/2015/05/despite-pressure-lower-minntac-sulfate-emissions-status-quo-could-last-awhile

Initially NRRI would not disclose specifics of its sulfate research to reporters. According to the Duluth News Tribune, Nov. 2014, “That’s because the university is hoping the experiments will show that bacteria can remove sulfate from mine wastewater and thus solve one of the most vexing environmental problems surrounding hard-rock mining in Northeastern Minnesota.” In that case one would think NRRI would love to talk about it.  

It is past time for NRRI to give Minnesota’s families, the families whose children may be affected by research on behalf of the mining industry, some straight answers concerning NRRI’s bioremediation technology.

The mercury elephant in the room

NRRI’s bioremediation has been promoted as the answer to the sulfate problem facing the mining industry, a problem that the taconite industry and our regulatory agencies have known about for decades and knowingly done nothing. Kicking the can down the road has finally boomeranged. Now the industry wants us to bail it out at the expense of Minnesota’s children. The mining industry’s “social license” to operate in Minnesota has expired.

More than wild rice is being harmed.

Sulfates, plus mercury, sulfate-reducing bacteria, anaerobic sediments, and dissolved organic carbon equals methyl mercury. Sulfates are the trigger. 

Methyl mercury is the crucial part of the sulfate problem NRRI and mining promoters avoid discussing. At a Jan. 2015 Izaak Walton League presentation in Duluth, when asked if NRRI had any methyl mercury numbers from its bioremediation research, NRRI director Dr. Rolf Weberg said he was not ready to release those numbers yet. Interesting. There was no problem releasing sulfate numbers.

The Lake Superior Basin of Minnesota already has 10% of newborns tested found with unsafe levels of mercury in their blood, likely from their mothers ingesting contaminated fish. Mercury levels that result in brain damage and loss of IQ points; such levels cost individuals and the US billions of dollars in lost earning potential. Ten years ago the figures were staggering. What are they today? http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1257552/

Damaging children for decades

Methyl mercury was to be monitored during the second phase of NRRI’s pilot study, which reportedly began July 2014 and was to end mid-summer 2015; either methyl mercury has not been monitored, or results are negative enough to put NRRI’s funding in jeopardy. Funding authorized by the Minnesota Legislature, representing the public. Yet, now there will be no methyl mercury numbers released to the public until 2016. Not until after PolyMet’s Final Environmental Impact Statement is released. Coincidence?

Meanwhile our Legislature voted to roll back environmental regulations, gut agency oversight, and eliminate public input meant to protect our waters and our children. Early childhood education, Governor Dayton; how about early childhood protection? https://www.minnpost.com/earth-journal/2015/05/legislatures-environmental-vandalism-could-undo-dayton-legacy-buffers

Unfortunately legislators of a certain mindset dominate the Legislature. “All we’re saying is, OK, let’s take a breather over these next couple of years here and operate the same way we’ve operated for the previous 130 years until all the science is in, all the science is complete, all the rules are complete,” said Rep. Carly Melin, referring to enforcing the wild rice sulfate standard. (AP) http://www.twincities.com/politics/ci_28122728/deal-reached-over-minnesota-wild-rice-sulfate-standards A year ago came this press release: “House DFL Leaders, Rep. Melin and Parents with Suffering Children Announce Medical Marijuana Compromise.” DFL Leaders and Melin apparently have forgotten that there are children suffering brain damage because of legislative actions on behalf of the mining industry, perhaps their own children and grandchildren.

Minnesota’s children have paid the price for the “way we’ve operated for the previous 130 years.” Now Melin is telling them to “take a breather.” Minnesota’s children cannot afford to subsidize the mining industry with their health and intellect any longer – they never could.

Wake up Minnesota, your babies are crying.

Silence is advocacy

Dec. 2014, I emailed Dr. Weberg, asking him to explain; if NRRI provides “balanced scientific study” and it does “not advocate for decisions, positions, or policies,” as he has stated, then why is NRRI silent concerning the other half of the sulfate bioremediation equation – namely methyl mercury?

No response from Weberg. The boilerplate public relations explanation is that “the research is in preliminary phases, NRRI cannot promise anything yet, and the research has intellectual property potential that must be protected. It is standard procedure for any patent process.”

Patent? “Patent-pending sulfate reduction technology,” according to the University of Minnesota. What would be patented? A bioreactor? A GMO? Genetically modified organism. Or both? The patent for a new GMO would be worth millions to NRRI. Equates to millions of reasons for silence.
“Frankenstein microbes?”

Both GMO and genetically engineered organism (GEM), refer to organisms that are genetically modified. GMO refers to animals, plants, or microorganisms; GEM refers only to microorganisms. Both refer to direct alteration of genes. The World Health Organization (WHO) description: “Organisms in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination.”

Feb. 2015, the editor of pro-mining Hometown Focus interviewed Weberg. One statement stood out, “These are native bacteria,” Weberg assured her. “People ask us that all the time, if we’re introducing weird strains of bacteria, but no, no GMOs, nothing weird.” Considering Weberg’s background with gene giant DuPont, “weird” was an intriguing word choice. And his response did not guarantee bacteria would remain unaltered.

The genome of one of the top sulfate reducing bacteria has been mapped. NRRI scientists can now construct a sulfate-eating bacterium. A genetically engineered microorganism that could be released to Minnesota’s waters; a bacterium that may be a super sulfate reducing bug, but also a super bug for mercury methylation.  Worthy of the title “Frankenstein microbe.”

University of Minnesota microbiologist Michael Sadowsky is well known for genetically modifying organisms. Director of the University’s BioTechnology Institute and co-director of MnDRIVE (the University’s initiative for industry), Sadowsky is also “co-investigator” for research at NRRI. He has “used recombinant DNA techniques to construct novel biodegradation pathways in bacteria and plants to remediate environmental pollutants.”

Shades of Monsanto

A $36 million research investment by the Minnesota Legislature has “joined” the University to industry. MnDRIVE funded undergraduate students have already genetically engineered a new bacterial strain, “a bacterium that could pull mercury-containing compounds [methyl mercury] from the water and also survive in high concentrations of the toxic [mining] chemicals.”

Brings to mind Monsanto’s genetically modified soy, genetically modified specifically to survive high levels of chemical pesticides, namely glyphosate. (Genetically modified soy was found in infant formula in Oregon, its safety debated}. Or Monsanto’s genetically modified glyphosate resistant Bt corn. Corn rootworm built up resistance. Super weeds built up resistance. Yet the harmless milkweed dies, not a threat to corn production, but vital to the survival of the Monarch butterfly (Minnesota’s state butterfly) whose population has been decimated as a result. http://www.motherjones.com/tom-philpott/2012/03/researchers-gm-crops-are-killing-monarch-butterflies-after-all

Now, according to WHO, glyphosate is a probable human carcinogen. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/widely-used-herbicide-linked-to-cancer/

In Minnesota’s waters, what would the biological – the ecological – implications be of genetically engineered bacteria capable of surviving high concentrations of mining chemicals?

Minnesota may be about to find out

The University’s MnDRIVE funded, genetically engineered, chemically resistant, mercury-eating bacterium was further engineered to convert the “captured” mercury to gaseous (elemental) mercury. However, releasing mercury to the air would be a big problem when it cycles back and oxidizes again, whether locally or globally. So the plan is not only to encapsulate the bacteria in a silica gel to keep it from escaping, but also to make sure the gel contains a filtration system to capture the volatilized mercury.

“The students have designed a clever way to rid the environment of toxic mercury compounds,” said Sadowsky. “Their project meshes very nicely with the overall bioremediation goals of our MnDRIVE initiative.” (Inquiry) Sulfate bioremediation goals?

Albert Einstein said, “A clever person solves a problem. A wise person avoids it.”

And since mercury cannot be destroyed, combusted, or degraded, only change form, just what is the plan to get rid of those gel encapsulated bacteria and mercury filled filters? And just how does that rid the environment of anything?

MnDRIVE Initiative

The vision: “Advancing industry, conserving our environment will enhance opportunities for Minnesota industries, including agriculture and mining, through the use of science and technology to solve environmental challenges and make more efficient use of water resources.”

“More efficient use of water resources” apparently equates only to the use of our waters as a sewer system for industry, notably big agriculture and mining.  Definition of efficient: “(especially of a system or machine) achieving maximum productivity with minimum wasted effort or expense.” Advancing industry, not our waters.

No justification not to enforce the sulfate standard

Genetically engineered or not, sulfate-reducing bacteria are being used in NRRI research bioreactors to convert sulfate to hydrogen sulfide, not in a lab but in a water-filled mine pit near Babbitt. What levels of hydrogen sulfide gas are being produced? How much methyl mercury is being produced? How much of the added iron is acting directly on mercury to form vaporous elemental mercury, instead of precipitating out as iron sulfide? Not all vaporous mercury blows away to become someone else’s problem; relatively low stack height at taconite plants also keeps mercury in the Lake Superior basin of Minnesota, where it oxidizes and again becomes available for methylation. What about the capability of iron-reducing bacteria in our waters to methylate mercury?

May 2015, I called Dr. Weberg and asked what methyl mercury numbers NRRI researchers were finding. He stated that there would be no numbers released until the data is “peer reviewed.” I asked who has seen the numbers so far; he told me “no one,” there were “no numbers.” He said he would talk to his water scientists to see if there was some information they were comfortable releasing now, and he would get back to me. Silence. Doublespeak.

Scientists still do not completely understand how bacteria, sulfate, iron, and mercury operate in our waters, particularly in the mining impacted St. Louis River. How bacteria may work in collaboration with one another, how numerous (sometimes uncontrollable) factors – known and unknown – influence bacterial activity. Such comprehensive research does not exist. Until it does, there is no justification not to enforce the wild rice sulfate standard – in order to protect our children. http://www.ornl.gov/ornl/news/news-releases/2013/ornl-research-reveals-new-challenges-for-mercury-cleanup

The public deserves answers now, not a year from now

Since the University has already engineered a mercury-eating bacterium, it is logical that the University’s BioTechnology Institute, MnDRIVE, and NRRI would collaborate to engineer a sulfate-eating bacterium. MnDRIVE gave NRRI $500,000 for sulfate research; plans were to spend $6.25 million from the Legislature earmarked for the mining industry as an “Initiative for Sustainable Mining Solutions,” aka subsidy. One would think a university would recognize that mining is by definition ultimately unsustainable.

Once NRRI decides to use genetically modified organisms in Minnesota’s waters, there is no guarantee they would remain trapped in a bioreactor or a pit lake. Telling us that bacteria would be isolated in a mine pit is a myth. A duck landing in pit water can carry bacteria elsewhere. Any such research needs to be isolated in the laboratory and done under strict protocol.

As for research, “a new study in mice at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis has shown that the DNA of bacteria that live in the body can pass a trait to offspring in a way similar to the parents’ own DNA. According to the authors, the discovery means scientists need to consider a significant new factor – the DNA of microbes passed from mother to child – in their efforts to understand how genes influence illness and health.”

“We have kept bacteria on one side of a line separating the factors that shape our development — the environmental side of that line, not the genetic side,” said co-senior author Herbert W. Virgin, MD, PhD. “But our results show bacteria stepping over the line. This suggests we may need to substantially expand our thinking about their contributions, and perhaps the contributions of other microorganisms, to genetics and heredity.”

So, Dr. Weberg, what are those methyl mercury numbers? Tell Minnesota’s children.

Is NRRI genetically engineering a sulfate-reducing bacterium, or researching and planning to? Is MnDrive’s mercury-eating bacterium part of NRRI’s bioremediation plan? Are NRRI researchers transferring DNA to create new bacterial strains, chemically resistant and potentially dangerous microorganisms for our waters and our children?

Or, is it true that the bioreactor is simply a failure.