The Campaign to “Give ‘em PolyMet, Stop ‘em at the Boundary Waters”

Elanne Palcich

The Canadian Mount Polley tailings pond breach demonstrates the risk of permitting PolyMet.  Cariboo Regional District
The Canadian Mount Polley tailings pond breach demonstrates the risk of permitting PolyMet. Cariboo Regional District
Acid Mine Drainage spills through an Ohio stream.   Credit: Ohio DNR
Acid Mine Drainage spills through an Ohio stream. Credit: Ohio DNR

A misguided plan is paving the way to turn much of Minnesota’s Arrowhead into a massive PolyMet/Teck /Twin Metals copper-nickel sulfide mining zone. PolyMet is being used as a bargaining chip in a politically expedient feel-good plan to save the Boundary Waters. PolyMet is being promoted as the “good” mine, and Twin Metals the “bad” mine in backroom deals in St. Paul and Washington. 

The Governor and political leaders who found themselves caught in the controversy over sulfide mining  jumped onto this toxic compromise plan, promising potential jobs for mine workers on the one hand, and protecting a popular wilderness area on the other hand. Governor Dayton has said that these mines discharge highly toxic sulfide mining waste and that “protecting the waters of the BWCA is one of our generation’s sacred responsibilities.” He then qualified his statement by becoming a “genuine supporter” of the PolyMet project. 

Tom Landwehr, Dayton’s appointed Commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), was given the dirty job of pushing PolyMet forward, despite any science and risk potential to the contrary. PolyMet’s destructive, “highly toxic” and unpopular sulfide mine should not be allowed on the headwaters of Lake Superior, with northeastern Minnesota’s major population centers located just downstream.


Cartoon from the Minnesota Daily - October 22, 1977. Same issues then as now.
Cartoon from the Minnesota Daily - October 22, 1977. Same issues then as now.

Political  History

Political waters don’t stay clean for very long.  The plan to “give ‘em” PolyMet, “stop ‘em” at the Boundary Waters was muddied from the start. 
The Minnesota DNR division of Lands and Minerals has a mission of promoting mineral exploration and mining.  In 1972 it established a library that now consists of 3 million lineal feet of drilled core samples  along with a geological atlas of the entire region--half a century’s worth of plans to turn the Arrowhead Region into a mining industrial zone. It shares this information with interested mining companies who are exploring throughout northeast Minnesota.

The Iron Range political delegation, which has long been controlled by mining interests, has supported proposed mine plans for PolyMet and the adjacent Teck and Twin Metals deposits.  They want no part in a compromise:  their plan is to turn the whole area into a mega Glencore/Teck/Antofagasta copper-nickel sulfide mining range, equivalent to the taconite industry on steroids, with a 99% waste rock footprint of leaching toxic heavy metals. Their political rhetoric promises high paying mine jobs, ignoring the lasting legacy of toxic sulfide mining pollution and risky tailings dams. Meanwhile they work to erode environmental laws and regulations, such as the sulfate standard, that may interfere with mining.

Mining interests have used a century of established iron ore and taconite mining to secure their political power and influence. Their powerful ties with the political parties, particularly the DFL, have assured that mining controls the state, not the other way around, and that environmental laws and water quality standards do not have to be followed. The DNR’s acceptance of PolyMet’s Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) is a classic example of regulatory capture.

On the Ground Reality

Proponents of the toxic compromise plan to “give ‘em PolyMet” and “save the Boundary Waters” claim that PolyMet will be the “test” mine, to see whether sulfide mining can be done “right” in our state.  This argument lacks logic.  It could take a decade or more for toxic drainage to appear from mine operations. Once such pollution occurs, there are no definitive plans in PolyMet’s environmental impact statement for clean-up, as all such potentials are to be resolved by “adaptive management” procedures to  be developed once the problem appears. There is nothing “state of the art” about using a 1950’s era refurbished crushing plant and an already leaking tailings basin purchased from the bankrupt LTV taconite mining company. PolyMet’s own EIS states that water from the plant site would need to be treated for at least 500 years. Another portion of the EIS shows that water flowing from the PolyMet mine site will eventually reach the Rainy River (Boundary Waters) watershed.

Twin Metals has already initiated legal actions against non-renewal of its two federal mineral leases. The Dept. of the Interior and Bureau of Land Management have since reinstated the leases. Twin Metals has been so bold as to release plans to put its sulfide mine waste in the sacrificial Lake Superior watershed under the guise of protecting the Boundary Waters. A joint venture between Twin Metals and PolyMet,  with sharing of infrastructure, would be a huge savings and benefit for both operations.  

Once the state of Minnesota permits a sulfide mine, and the precedent is set that toxic sulfide mining can be done in our water-rich environment, it will be nearly impossible to stop additional sulfide mine development. Our mining-controlled state has no political will to deny a permit to mine, nor to hold the mining companies accountable for perpetual pollution and treatment. There is no amount of money adequate to address the high risk and lasting pollution that will be left for future generations to resolve.

All imagres supplied by Elanne Palcich
All images supplied by Elanne Palcich

The Nolan Legacy

In May of 2017, eight environmental groups filed four separate lawsuits against the U.S. Forest Service regarding the transfer of over 6,500 acres of federal land to PolyMet, which has partnered with mining and commodities giant Glencore. The lawsuits were filed challenging the legality of the PolyMet land exchange environmental review and approval process, and were based upon the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Weeks Act, and the Federal Policy Management Act-- bedrock environmental laws. 

But prior to any judicial review, 8th District Congressman Rick Nolan introduced H.R. 3115, the Superior National Forest Land Exchange Act of 2017. The purpose of the bill is to override the citizens’/environmental groups’ lawsuits as granted under the laws of the land and Constitution, and would compel the Forest Service to transfer public land to PolyMet. After passage in the House, the bill was referred to the Senate.  

Enter Tina Smith

During this same time period, Senator Al Franken was accused of sexual harassment. Even though his women staffers came to his defense, Franken was pushed out of office by the #MeToo movement.
Governor Dayton quickly stepped in to appoint his Lt. Governor, Tina Smith, to replace Franken. Smith was seated as Senator on January 3, 2018. She used the first opportunity available, partnering with Sen. Amy Klobuchar, to introduce Nolan’s bill as a poison pill rider (now Senate Amendment 2523) and get it attached to the unrelated, but must-pass, National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). 

Sen. Smith’s PolyMet amendment, along with a dozen other anti-environment riders, was removed from the NDAA on July 24. However, backed by PolyMet cheerleaders, Smith announced that she will continue her efforts to get a poison pill PolyMet rider passed in the Senate. 

Back at the Ranch...

Meanwhile, Rep. Nolan, who earlier announced his retirement as U.S. Representative, entered the Minnesota Governor’s race, as Lt. Gov. running mate to Lori Swanson. Nolan is now facing questions put forth by former staffers about his handling of sexual harassment charges concerning his former  legislative director and lifelong friend, Jim Swiderski. (Minnpost, 7/19/2018, Rep. Rick Nolan’s legislative director left the office amid multiple sexual harassment accusations in 2015.  Months later he was hired by Nolan’s campaign.) Additional claims of overlooked harassment on Nolan’s part were highlighted in the Timberjay (Recriminations and regrets, August 3, 2018).

Harassment claims  associated with Nolan present Tina Smith with a quandary. Smith was appointed Senator due to #MeToo pressures against Al Franken. This same #MeToo Movement is now calling out Rep. Nolan.  Yet Sen. Smith continues to promote his highly controversial land exchange bill.  
Financial records show that Tina Smith’s husband’s former investment business has connections with Glencore, the company tied to PolyMet (Duluth Reader, June 28, 2018, Tina Smith, Glencore, and the Toxic Path to Pollution). In the meantime, Archie Smith has moved from Senior Portfolio Manager at Rothschild Capital Partners LLC.  to a firm that invests in medical device stock.  Sen. Smith is now supporting legislation to repeal the federal excise tax on medical devices. 

At the same time that Sen. Smith is advocating for the give-away of northeast Minnesota’s wilderness public lands to a foreign mining conglomerate, she has voiced support for America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act, an effort to save portions of Utah’s wild lands from drilling and mining proposals. Sen. Klobuchar has co-sponsored this bill. This is NIMBY in reverse--protecting someone else’s backyard, but not our own.

 From an ethical standpoint, Sen. Smith needs to drop her efforts to bypass citizens’ due process, while handing public land over to multinational PolyMet/Glencore.

Further Fallout

The August 14 primary will determine which Democratic candidates will face which Republicans in the general election. Of the 8th District Democratic Congressional candidates, Joe Radinovich and Kirsten Kennedy are former Nolan aides, and Jason Metsa’s brother is a current aide. Our government is supposed to be a democracy, not a dynasty. 

8th District candidates Michelle Lee, Soren Sorensen and Skip Sandman, along with Richard Painter who is running against Senator Tina Smith, are free from connections with Nolan and toxic sulfide mining. They have all stated their support for the clean water resources of northeast Minnesota in all watersheds--Lake Superior, Rainy River, and Mississippi.

Northern Minnesota’s Water as a National Strategic Resource 

The Great Lakes represent more than 20 percent of the world’s fresh surface water, and 95 percent of the fresh surface water in the United States, with millions of people relying on these waters.
Northern Minnesota’s Great Divide contains waters that flow in three directions: north into Canada, east into Lake Superior, and south into the Mississippi. These are waters of international importance and a significant natural resource for ourselves and future generations. We should not allow multinational mining conglomerates to poison the headwaters of our nation with toxic sulfide mining waste.

Immoral Trade

Seventy four percent of Minnesotans oppose the PolyMet mine (Minnesota Voters’ Environmental Priorities in 2017, Minnesota Environmental Partnership). The people of Minnesota are ahead of our government.  Citizens realize the value and importance of clean waters, abundant wildlife, and intact forests that define northern Minnesota.

Our current political leaders have chosen to divide our headwaters, ignore constituents’ safety, and override majority opposition to toxic sulfide mining. Who among us is so wise as to determine that a  watershed should be sacrificed? Do we expect our waters, forests, wetlands, and wildlife to abide by imaginary paper boundaries intended to cut our region in half, tearing us all apart to satiate foreign mining conglomerate greed?

Politicians are willing to sacrifice the long-term health of our people and environment for the short term gain of an election cycle.


Rep. Nolan and Senators Smith and Klobuchar have all chosen to support a foreign mining company that has  a track record of human and environmental injustice, rather than supporting U.S. law and Minnesota citizens’ rights.  Glencore is currently being investigated by the U.S. government related to the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and U.S money laundering statutes for alleged  tax evasion, exploitation of workers, labor rights abuses, and environmental damages in Nigeria and Venezuela. 

 It’s time to bring this kind of conflicted politics to an end. This is not the time to play games with our watersheds, our people, and our future. Minnesota is a water rich state, and our citizens value the headwaters of the Laurentian Divide--both the Lake Superior and the Rainy River watersheds. The only way to prevent a toxic Glencore/Teck/Antofagasta mining district in northern Minnesota’s most important waterways is to declare that sulfide mining is off-bounds in the state.

 It’s time for our politicians to stand up for us--not to cave in to multinational mining companies.

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