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“Fool Me Once…” Mining or Hazardous Chemical Processing

Fool Me Once; by Mike Hillman

When the Wilderness Bill was signed into law back in 1973, I congratulated an old friend who had worked long and hard to see the Boundary Waters Canoe Country a designated as a wilderness area. I thought that with the passage of the Wilderness Bill, which prevented mining, logging, and any development in the Boundary Waters; that the area was safe from exploitation. My friend smiled at me and told me that the area would never be safe, because the work done by one generation could be easily undone by any future generation who deemed it necessary to take what they needed from the area. All it would take was a two thirds majority of Congress and a Presidential signature and the Wilderness Bill would be null and void. I didn’t realize how prophetic his words were, and that it would be my generation that would have to decide the issue of mining again on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe area in the heart of the Superior National Forest, but less than half a century later, that is exactly the decision that we are going to have to make.

Many people are of the opinion that sulfide mining isn’t a question of if, but rather a question of when it will happen. To many it is only a question of time. To many the issue is all a matter of time and need before we allow the world’s second largest formation of copper and nickel to be developed by foreign owned mining companies.

There is no question that with the world’s population is getting bigger, and that we are seeing an increasing demand for metals like copper and nickel. To many people it makes good sense that the people of Minnesota should seize this opportunity of need to begin mining near Ely and Babbitt. The world needs more and more copper and nickel for things like computers, cell phones, and all kinds of other gizmos and gadgets; some of which haven’t even been thought of yet. The pro mining people tell us there is no time like the present, and that the mistakes made in the past by mining companies are just that; mistakes from the past which won’t be duplicated in the future. The pro mining people tell us that rather than going to Africa, where the world’s largest reserve of copper and nickel is located, that it would be better to mine Minnesota. Their reasoning is that we have better mining laws here, and stricter environmental regulations that would insure the mistakes of the past won’t be repeated next to one of the nation’s last reserves of unpolluted fresh water. The pro mining people are telling us that as long as the grass grows, and the wind blows, and the rivers flow; we will protect the integrity of the land. It is an easy promise to make, but not to keep.

The truth is that the laws that govern mines in the United States haven’t changed since the late nineteenth century when all America was concerned with was answering the needs of a growing population. It was the time of robber barons and big trusts who were concerned with exploiting our national resources without much thought to the long term costs of that exploitation. It was the age of Manifest Destiny when America believed that we were God’s chosen people, and that the reason he blessed us with so much was that he wanted us to go out and conquer the wilderness and harness all that bounty. Northeastern Minnesota was one of those places that paid a great price for the Carpe Diem philosophy of the time which was grab all you can today and let tomorrow take care of it self.

Today’s mining people are trying to tell you that Minnesota has a chance to do something locally that will have great global impact. Give us your copper and nickel; let us mine your precious metals, the nation and world needs your resources like it never did before. The world needs what you have, and we owe it to the world to give the world its due. Haven’t we heard the same rhetoric before? Back then it wasn’t the world that needed what we have, back then it was the nation, and we gave them everything we had. When the big lumber companies came to log the great pines they took everything they could get. The logging company propaganda told the people of Minnesota that there were so many pines that we could never cut them all. In less than thirty years all the pines were gone, and the logging companies moved west. They left stumps and slash but that’s all we got in way of compensation. When the mining began in the 1880’s the mining propaganda loudly proclaimed that there was so much iron in Minnesota that we could never mine it all. In less then a century all the natural iron was gone from our three iron ranges. We were left with pits and rock dumps. The mining companies took the iron, and we got the shaft. And now they are ready to shaft us again.

I have been told that desperate times lead to desperate measures. Are we really so desperate that we will bargain our long term future for short term prosperity that will leave our children and grandchildren the same pits and waste dumps that we see all over the Mesabi Iron Range? If that were all the negative impact perhaps we would enter the same bargain; but sulfide mining isn’t like grandpa’s iron mine, and it isn’t your father’s taconite mines. They only impacted the land. This time the impact will be two fold: Sulfide mining will scar the land and pollute the water.
So far, the only person, other than the mining companies themselves, writing in favor of the sulfide mining is Doctor Kent Kaiser, who has written at least two pieces on why we should allow sulfide mining around the Ely area. Those two articles appeared in the Ely Echo where Doctor Kaiser was welcomed as a guest of the paper. Kent Kaiser isn’t a Doctor of Mining; he is a Doctor of letters, and a master of propaganda.

His articles are filled with lofty rhetoric about new and improved mining technology, but when I tried to contact him as to where I could find a single example of this new and improved mining technology I didn’t get an answer back from him. The reason I didn’t get an answer back from Kent Kaiser was because there really isn’t anything new or improved about sulfide mining. The truth about mining is that while it has gotten bigger in terms of the size of the equipment used, mining really hasn’t gotten much better over the passage of time.

The truth of sulfide mining is that they will pulverize millions of tons of rock in order to produce a few thousand tons of copper, nickel, and other precious metals back for their efforts. The ratio of what they will keep as to what they will actually use is in some cases as little as two percent return. That means that for every ton of rock they mine they will take twenty pounds of product and leave over nineteen hundred pounds of pulverized waste that will be pumped to a safe place where it will be held back by dikes. The life of the sulfide mining will be lucky to last two generations, and then it will be finished. When they are done the mining companies involved will leave the area just like the logging and mining companies did previously. But this time the waste will contain poisons that will sooner or later work there way into our lakes and rivers. One of the mining people told me not to worry about that, because by the time that happens we both will be dead. Then he went on to tell me that the acid pollution I am so concerned about won’t be any stronger than orange juice. I asked him if anything can live in orange juice he looked at me like I was crazy. When I then enquired what the worst case scenario would be, he told me, off the record, that the worst case would be dealing with sulfuric acid.

The truth is that if we allow sulfide mining to happen in the Ely area, there isn’t a place where we can dump so much sulfur laden waste rock anywhere in Northeastern Minnesota that it won’t fail to pollute or water system. The old saying goes;”Fool me once and shame on thee. Fool me twice, and shame on me.” With the stakes so high we can’t afford to be fooled even once. The last of the big timber in the Ely area was gone in the 1920’s. The last iron mine closed in 1967. The only reason Ely-Winton and Tower-Soudan are still here at all is because they are surrounded by beautiful lakes and rivers. If we take care of those beautiful lakes and rivers generations of people will keep coming here and we will have a resource that will last as long as the grass grows, the wind blows, and the rivers roll on to Hudson’s Bay. But if we put all that beauty in jeopardy; for a few years of limited prosperity, it will mark us down to the latest generation, as nothing more than a generation of desperate people who gambled away their rightful inheritance for a pocket full of empty promises. There is much truth to the saying that practice makes perfect. Let the mining companies go to Africa with their grand promises, and let them demonstrate to the world they really can do it right. It seems to me that based on their dismal record of the past, that they could use all the practice they can get. Until then let us keep the Superior National Forest and the Boundary Waters Wilderness area just as they are.

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