By Beth Bily
Eight years after the environmental review process began for PolyMet, the contentious nature of nonferrous mining continues.
A panel discussion held last week at Grand Rapids Area Public Library showed a chasm still exists between the region’s need for economic development and the environmental concerns that surround nonferrous mining.
A number of nonferrous (copper, nickel and other precious metals) mining projects currently are in various stages of development. Proposals by Twin Metals Minnesota and PolyMet are among the best known. Most developed in terms of review is the project sponsored by PolyMet, a Canadian company having substantial investment support from Switzerland-based Glencore. If approved, the project will utilize the Erie Plant, formerly a taconite processing facility operated by LTV, which is located on a brownfield site near Hoyt Lakes.
At stake are thousands of jobs, considerable spinoff development and billions of dollars worth of economic activity. A November 2012 study on the impact of ferrous and nonferrous mining conducted by UMD’s Labovitz School estimated a potential total economic impact (direct and indirect) of nearly $320 million and almost 1,900 jobs. The state’s school trust also stands to benefit economically – to the tune of more than $2 billion.
Environmentalists, however, contend that the quality of Minnesota’s water and lands are at stake and the risks of nonferrous mining may outweigh any economic benefits.
Those opposing viewpoints were expressed by panel discussion participants Frank Ongaro, executive director of Mining Minnesota; Peter Clevenstine, assistant director with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Division of Lands and Minerals, and Kathryn Hoffman, an attorney with the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy.
Clevenstine kicked off the discussion with a “Mining 101” primer. He noted that various federal and state regulators are closely involved with the review and permitting process. That process must be successfully completed before any new mining project can get off the ground.
There are a number of forces at play when regulators review proposals, said Clevenstine, including whether the lands in question are best developed, preserved or used for public recreational purposes.
“Our objective at the DNR is to try to balance all perspectives,” he said.
Development is certainly a goal for Mining Minnesota, a group of companies and organizations that seek to develop nonferrous mining in the Duluth Complex, which contains one of the world’s largest undeveloped copper deposits.
That massive nonferrous potential, Ongaro noted, has attracted interest from a dozen or so companies. Demand and technological advances are fueling the frenzy, he said.
“We consume twice as much copper as we produce,” said Ongaro, who added that the financial assurances demanded of mining companies coupled with regulatory requirements protect both taxpayers and the environment.
Environmentalists point to the history of nonferrous mining, sometimes referred to as sulfide mining because of the sulfides that are bound to and unearthed in nonferrous mining operations. Sulfides can pose significant environmental threats when mixed with air and water – producing sulfuric acid.
Hoffman said the public should be troubled by nonferrous proposals.
“Were not an anti-mining organization. That said, we have grave concerns that a sulfide operation can meet the standards for safe operation,” she said. “Our goal is to provide accurate information about costs and benefits.”
Sulfide dangers can be mitigated with limestone, by storing waste rock under water and other methods.
Wisconsin’s Flambeau Mine near Ladysmith, a copper mine that operated from 1993 to 1997, removed 181,000 tons of copper, 3.3 million ounces of silver and 334,000 ounces of gold. Nonferrous mining advocates often hold up Flambeau as an example of nonferrous mining that operated and concluded safely.
Kennecott Minerals operated the mine and was issued a certificate of completion for the mine’s reclamation in 2007. The company remains responsible for the site for another 40 years.
That likely will not be enough to satisfy environmental concerns, however. Hoffman said that the Great Lakes and Boundary Waters are at stake and some companies, through bankruptcy or other means, manage to escape the long-term costs of their operations.
“Unfortunately, the history of sulfide mining is disastrous,” Hoffman told the Grand Rapids audience. She concedes that Flambeau is a “good looking site” but also contends that water tests have confirmed the presence of high levels of copper and zinc.
The panel presentations were followed by a public question and answer period, which showed an audience also weighing economic and environmental concerns.
The push-pull between mining advocates and environmentalists isn’t likely to abate any time soon. PolyMet’s Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement is due out next month. Its long-awaited release will trigger a 90-day public comment period followed by a determination of adequacy by regulators.