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The Ely Echo should be worrying about the threat to the Boundary Waters and the Lake Superior Watersheds

Sulfide Mining blinders May 1, 2013, To The Ely Echo

Dear Editor:

The Echo’s April 20 editorial contains this:  “We believe the Ely area and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area make up some of best examples of heaven on God’s green Earth. None of us want to see the water that flows through these parts to be impaired in any way.”  Sincere thanks to the Echo for this reminder that we are privileged to live on the edge of one of the world’s great wilderness areas.  Water is the heart and soul of the Boundary Waters.

As I stated in a recent letter, Mark Twain supposedly said “A mine is a hole in the ground owned by a liar.”  I do not contend that mine owners or their employees invariably lie.  However, some do say things that are disingenuous and misleading.  The Echo’s April 20 article about American Rivers’ recognition of the threat to the Boundary Waters quotes a Twin Metals representative as denying  that metallic sulfide ore mining is a pollution threat (he called it “non-ferrous” mining, which is a term that mining boosters use in the hope that we will forget about sulfides that create sulfuric acid and sulfates).  The Twin Metals representative contends that federal environmental legislation has laid to rest all pollution problems from such mines.  According to the Echo, he said “the best example is the Flambeau Mine in Wisconsin. It was developed, opened, operated and closed with no environmental degradation.”  That is truly creative revisionist history.  If the Flambeau Mine is the best example of a non-polluting mine, we on the edge of the Boundary Waters have much to fear.  In comparison to the monstrous mine that Twin Metals proposes, or even in comparison to the PolyMet project, the Flambeau Mine was tiny.  It operated for only four years; it was permitted in 1991, opened in 1993, and closed in 1997.   In developing and permitting the mine, the mining company and government regulatory bodies were confident that the mine design would result in no pollution.  Instead, multiple monitoring sites and studies during the years since the Flambeau Mine closed show that waste from the mine has consistently polluted streams and groundwater with copper, zinc, iron, and manganese.  On July 24, 2012, U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb ruled that the Flambeau Mine had committed eleven violations of the Clean Water Act.

The April 20 Echo also quoted the Twin Metals representative as stating “There has been no mine that has been permitted post NEPA that has been on the Superfund site or has gone bankrupt.” NEPA, the National Environmental Policy Act, was passed in 1970.  CERCLA, the federal statute that established the Superfund concept, was passed in 1980. Someone apparently told the Twin Metals representative that he needed to do some homework.  He came back for another shot at it with a letter in the April 27 Echo, but the result was the same—he was wrong on the facts.  He wrote:  “[N]o hard rock mining project – like the copper nickel projects being proposed in northern Minnesota– federally permitted in the modern era of national “Superfund”regulations has posed an environmental concern or financial shortcoming that would cause it to be designated a national “Superfund” site.”  In fact, here are a few examples of events that have occurred since those statutes became law.  The State of Montana Department of Environmental Quality website says this about the Zortman Landusky Mines in Phillips County, Montana:  “The Zortman and Landusky mines were . . .  operated between 1979 and 1998 by Pegasus Gold, Inc. . . . .  Following the bankruptcy of Pegasus, the State of Montana and the BLM began a co-operative effort to reclaim the mines . . . .”   The Gilt Edge Mine in South Dakota, which began operations in 1986, provides a “daily double” of inaccurate statements by the Twin Metals representative.  That mining company became insolvent and the mine is a Superfund site.   Ditto the Summitville gold mine in Colorado.  Summitville commenced large-scale open-pit operations in 1984; according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency website, the mine operator, Summitville Consolidated Mining Corp., Inc., “abandoned the site and announced it was filing for bankruptcy in December 1992.  EPA immediately assumed responsibility of the site as an emergency response. On May 31, 1994 Summitville was placed on the National Priorities List (NPL) of Superfund sites.”  What else is Twin Metals saying that is at odds with the facts?

Mining boosters assert that those who oppose sulfide mining in the watershed of the Boundary Waters are pre-judging. They sing the standard lullaby about Minnesota’s allegedly strong environmental laws and regulatory agencies.  In fact, history provides no reason for anyone to have confidence that state laws and state regulators will protect our waters.  When the IRRRB was sued a couple of years ago because it had violated state law by loaning money to PolyMet before environmental review, the mining company supporters in the legislature changed the law.  When mining companies worried that they would not be able to meet the state standard for maximum sulfates in the water, our state government agreed to re-examine the standard even though it had been developed through rigorous scientific research.  The Minnesota PCA has issued variance after variance for the Dunka Pit and for other mining pollution.  Our DNR openly admits that it does not enforce limits in water withdrawal permits, in part because it is so busy issuing new permits.  Within the last few weeks, Minnesota backed out of a study seeking the sources of elevated mercury levels in the St. Louis River; Minnesota’s partners in the study were the State of Wisconsin, the Fond du Lac Band, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (which our governor says he wants to eliminate).  Minnesota’s asserted reasons for quitting are not credible; the state said that it did not approve of the computer model being used and that state scientists wanted more time to study how mercury behaves in nature.  Many believe that the real reason for the withdrawal is that taconite mining has already been identified as a source of sulfates that enable mercury pollution, and the sulfate load from taconite mining is a fraction of the sulfates that would be discharged into waters from sulfide ore mining.  In other words, the state withdrew from the study because mining companies and their supporters in state government fear the study’s results will be inconvenient.

For state government to shill for mining companies by asserting in print and public statements that sulfide mining will be “done right” in Minnesota when such mining has left environmental destruction at sites around the world is an abdication of responsibility and the worst sort of pre-judging.  People who oppose sulfide mining in the watershed of the Boundary Waters are not pre-judging.  We can look at the existing record: the Dunka Pit, the Spruce Road site, our state government’s consistent failures to enforce our laws against mining companies, the history of the companies that seek to mine here, and, last but certainly not least, the destruction wrought by mining elsewhere.

The Echo in its April 20 editorial worries that the American Rivers recognition of the threat to the Boundary Waters will scare tourists.  The Echo should instead be worrying about the threat, as business owners and so many others are. 

Reid Carron

Town of Morse



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