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Sulfide mining should have no place in Minnesota’s lake country

First posted on MPR News  by Christopher Loch   January 11, 2010

The media need to start telling the whole story about newly-proposed mining projects in Northern Minnesota. The public should know about how mines such as those proposed by the Canadian company PolyMet will affect the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) and other natural areas and resources in Minnesota.

These mining projects are both economically toxic and environmentally unsound.

Environmental damage from such mining will be huge and irreversible. The type of mining currently being considered in Minnesota extracts precious metals like copper and gold at the expense of our precious waters and other natural resources.

Such Minnesota traditions as iron and taconite mining are totally different from the sulfide mining now under consideration. Sulfide mining has never been done in Minnesota before, and for all practical purposes is banned in neighboring Wisconsin due to pollution concerns.

Sulfide mining exposes sulfur-bearing soil and rocks to air and water, resulting in the formation of immense amounts of sulfuric acid. This in turn causes heavy metal and sulfuric acid pollution in the surrounding watershed (ground water, streams, rivers and lakes in the area, in this case including Lake Superior). There would be massive fish kills and dead bodies of water with no life in them at all, among other damage.

This is not hypothetical. It’s guaranteed. Everywhere that sulfide mining has been done it has resulted in irreversible environmental harm. Once the sulfur-rich soil and rock is disturbed, the process of leaching will begin, and it will continue essentially forever. Let me repeat: forever. Any attempt at cleanup would have to go on forever also, costing the taxpayers large sums of money in perpetuity.

Take for example the Asarco Mine in Butte, Mont. It is now an EPA superfund site that requires costly and perpetual water treatment due to sulfide mining. And there are many more examples. In fact, the EPA has reported that sulfide mining is the single largest source of toxic pollution in the United States.

Reputable scientists dispute claims by the sulfide mining industry that new technologies can contain or prevent the pollution caused by sulfide mines.

Meaningful cleanup of such pollution is impossible. We are dealing with a gigantic, porous chunk of the earth. Landfills and other pollution storage caches have all been shown to leak due to natural processes such as tremors, burrowing animals, plant roots, chemical reactions and more. So containment is out. And this kind of mess can never be “cleaned up” in any real sense. The law of diminishing returns promises that some hard to reach areas of pollution will be too expensive to clean up. Finally, implicit in the concept “cleaned up” is the idea of an end date at which the pollution will be gone. Perpetual water treatment is by definition never finished.

The cost of any perpetual pollution mitigation (however imperfect) would be astronomical. It is quite possible that in our new economic reality, politicians would not raise taxes to pay for the cleanup, and thus it would never be undertaken. And there is no reliable way to ensure the companies will be held accountable. Even if a law were passed to do so, that law would be unenforceable if the companies went bankrupt.

It’s happened before. Another Canadian company, Dakota Mining, filed for bankruptcy after a subsidiary created an environmental nightmare near Deadwood, S.D., in the 1990s. The state collected the bond that the firm had posted, but the amount was nowhere near enough to cover cleanup costs.

All this should be enough to stop debate and prevent any sulfide mining from ever happening here. But there is more to consider. Nine billion dollars is spent annually in Minnesota on lake-based tourism. That is a significant part of the state economy, and in some areas its contribution is crucial. Just ask Jane and Steve Koschak, who own a family resort on Birch Lake, where sulfide mining is proposed. They worry that tainted waters could harm their business. Already, noise from test drilling in the middle of the lake is affecting their previously quiet vacation area.

You can hear from the Koschaks and others living in areas that will be affected by the proposed sulfide mining in a short documentary called “Precious Waters” at www.preciouswaters.org. Residents there were at first largely supportive of precious metal mining, but they have turned against it after finding out that it’s not like iron mining.

What will happen to the Boundary Waters if this mining happens? If its pristine waters are tarnished by pollution, large numbers of tourists who come from all over the world to canoe there would likely stop coming. If the mining begins, not only chemical pollution but industrial noise pollution will find its way into the BWCAW. Even if expensive water treatment were undertaken (forever) to try to remedy the water pollution, it would be hard to sell the BWCAW as pristine given the mining noise and large industrial-looking water treatment facilities nearby.

Beyond the Boundary Waters, the wider lake-based tourism economy depends on tourists’ perception that Minnesota’s lakes are clean and healthy. If sulfide mining undercuts that perception, tourism near the mines will surely decrease. But I believe it will also affect tourism for lake areas in Minnesota that are nowhere near the BWCAW and mining sites.

Think about it. Have you ever decided not to vacation somewhere because of one single negative thing you heard about it? Non-Minnesotans don’t know much about our state. They know a few city names and a few amenities perhaps. They usually have no idea how far one place is from another. So major pollution of the cleanest waters in Minnesota will likely affect overall perceptions of all of Minnesota’s waters.

Additionally, if the many mines that are proposed go forward, “up north” will be scarred with monumental new piles of rubble and pot holes that are miles across and hundreds of feet deep where scenic natural beauty once was. Will that have an effect on tourism?

The lake-based tourism economy and the tens of thousands of jobs it generates dwarf any benefits that could possibly come from this un-Minnesotan type of mining.

Sulfide mining in Minnesota just doesn’t add up, economically or environmentally. Any amount of economic benefit will be short lived and shared by only a few. Whereas all Minnesotans will lose the pristine and majestic nature of the BWCAW and other precious waters up north. Instead of being compensated for that terrible loss, we will be paying taxes to do water treatment up there until kingdom come.

Ernest Oberholtzer and others saved our precious “up north” once before by preventing Edward Backus from building seven dams there. Those opposed to the dams included many farsighted businessmen. Now as then, the choice isn’t between serving business and protecting the environment. Many folks go up north and to the BWCAW with buddies they don’t necessarily agree with, politically or otherwise, but together they share the values that have kept these lakes among the cleanest in the world.

“Up north” can be saved again. It will take some hard work by citizens and some well researched and balanced coverage by the media. People should call their federal, state and local representatives, and tell them not to fall for the fallacy that sulfide mines will help the state economically. And they should remind the DNR that its job is to protect the natural resources of Minnesota, not auction them off.

Christopher Loch, Minneapolis, works as a printer and often vacations in the BWCAW.

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