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Sixteen Tons and What Would You Get, by Mike Hillman

One of the best mining ballads is Merle Travis’ song; Sixteen Tons. The title comes from the average amount of ore a miner brought each month in order to almost break even. The classic line of the song comes at the end of the chorus; “St. Peter don’t you call me cause I can’t go, I owe my soul to the company store.” The reason I thought about the song is because there are a lot of people talking about mining sulfide rock near Ely and Babbitt. I have visited with folks on both sides of the issue. Everyone agrees we could use the jobs, but others think the eventual employment benefits, wouldn’t equal the ecological mess sulfide mining would leave behind. According to reports, in the local papers, mining companies are interested in opening sulfide mines near the Kawishiwi River and Birch Lake. The reason for all the renewed interest in copper nickel mining is that the area contains one of the largest reserves of copper and nickel in the world, and mining companies are very interested.
The current interest in mining copper and nickel in Northeastern Minnesota really isn’t based on some hot new mining discovery. People have known about copper and nickel along the shores of the Kawishiwi River water shed for over a hundred years. Back in the 1960’s, the formation was extensively explored with diamond drills. Hopes were high back in the 1960’s, that soon there would be copper and nickel mining in Northeastern Minnesota.
Those early newspaper reports were correct. The formation is huge, but the reports people read in the papers were misleading. The Kawishiwi Formation covers a huge area of land, but it isn’t high in mineral content. The percentage of desired minerals found in the rock is right around one percent. The area where the deposits of minerals are found covers a vast area, but none of it would be described as a bonanza. If they ever mine the formation, one thing is for sure, it will take a lot of mining to get a ton of finished product. If sulfide mining is done here, it will have to be done on a grand scale in order to turn profit, and they will leave a lot of waste behind them; ninety nine percent to be exact.
That got me thinking about Merle Travis’ old mining song. If a person mined sixteen tons of rock a from the Kawishiwi Formation, just how many tons of copper or nickel would you get in return. A ton is measured at two thousand pounds. One percent of 2,000 pounds would leave twenty pounds of finished product. After taking the twenty pounds we wanted, we would then be left with a total of 1980 pounds of waste rock for every ton mined. I was surprise when I did the math in my head and simply multiplied 16 tons by twenty pounds. I didn’t even need a calculator. We would have a total of 320 pounds of finished product out of every sixteen tons of rock mined.
The product might be copper, nickel, gold, platinum, or any number of other metals found in the rock, but no matter what the product might be, it’s going to leave a lot of waste rock behind; 31,680 pounds to be exact for each sixteen tons of rock mined. That’s a lot of left overs. It’s those left overs which give me the greatest cause for worry.
My concern isn’t for the 320 pounds of metals extracted from each sixteen tons of rock mined in Northeastern Minnesota. My concerns are for the fifteen plus tons of waste rock left behind. I am concerned, because wherever it has been done in the past, sulfide mining leads to surface and ground water pollution. I am also concerned, because in order to separate the metals from the rock, it all has to be pulverized first in order to separate what you want from what you don’t want. Then water is added, and the pulverized slurry, and it is passed through vats of noxious chemicals like potassium or sodium cyanide. The cyanide separates the desired metals from the waste rock. It is a required part of the process, but everyone agrees cyanide is bad stuff in a place like Minnesota with so much water.
The last I heard, they were talking about the sulfide mining lasting somewhere around twenty years. Heaven knows Northeastern Minnesota could use some high paying jobs. There are many people who support the idea of sulfide mining in Northeastern Minnesota. I am not one of them. No one in Northeastern Minnesota can say for sure that sulfide mining can be done safely here, because we have never mined sulfide rock in Minnesota before. I searched for a good example of successful sulfide mining, but I couldn’t find one. The mining companies take their profits and then we are left with one more potential Super Fund clean up site left when a foreign owned company packed up and went home once the mining is done. It’s easy to understand why the mining companies want to come here; they get the precious metals, and we get the shaft. I wish I could find a way to support the proposed sulfide mining, but I can’t. Sulfide mining doesn’t justify the risk. Let’s all say no to sulfide mining near the boundary waters.

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