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Contrary to MCEA report, mining does matter to the Range

Mesabi Daily News
October 13, 2007

The Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy has gotten some of their "expert advocates" to basically say that mining just doesn't really matter much any more to the Iron Range economy.

The report's findings were absolutely no surprise considering the groups that funded it – the MCEA and the Sierra Club. Their agenda is unquestioned regarding nonferrous mining of precious metals on the Iron Range: Try to stop it at all costs, including court costs. Heck, the MCEA has even gone after the Minnesota Steel taconite mine/mini mill project in Itasca County by filing suit there against the DNR, which produced a favorable study on the project that was supported unanimously in a board vote that allowed permitting to move ahead.

Nonferrous mining projects PolyMet at the former Erie Mining site near Aurora/Hoyt Lakes and Franconia Minerals near Babbitt, which seek copper/nickel and precious metal deposits, have to contend with a very checkered history of sulfide mining in the county.

There have been some bad examples in the past of such initiatives where harm was done to the environment when sulfuric acid leaked into the watershed of a mined area. So the onus is on them – as it should be – to be transparent in an extensive state regulatory permit process before being allowed to build a mining facility and start producing the minerals. Mining officials must make a strong case that, with new technology and a greater appreciation of environmental damage that can be done, nonferrous mining and the environment can be compatible in Minnesota.

They are working to do just that in a very responsible manner. Minnesota has a stringent and costly regulatory process for resource-based ventures, which both PolyMet and Franconia are working through right now.

An official for the MCEA said that the group doesn't "oppose these mines necessarily" but needs to be a strong watchdog to ensure that the state's environmental laws are enforced and studies are "done well."

We agree. And that's what is being done. But we also have faith and confidence in the state's DNR and Pollution Control Agency to do that work. Not so, however, it seems the MCEA. In response to a question for an MDN story on nonferrous mining last Sunday regarding whether the MCEA trusts the DNR and MPCA, an official for the environmental group hedged. "I want to say yes, but our job is to be the public watchdog as well." Watchdogs are good. But watchdogs with a pre-disposed agenda to try to block projects that pass state regulatory muster hurt working men and women and the communities where they live. That's what's happening now regarding the Minnesota Steel project and the hundreds of jobs it will create in construction and then hundreds more permanently when the plant goes on line.

But, according to the report, mining jobs just aren't that big of a deal these days on the Iron Range. The percent of personal income in the state received from mining has dropped in the past 25 years or so. Well, no kidding. That's what happened when fickle economic winds of the country came blowing through the region. That, combined with technology advances that cut into the need for labor, hit the ore and steel industries hard.

But to then take the illogical leap to a determination that questions the importance of mining in a mining region with hundreds of years of the resource left is just plain wrong. We have taken some important steps in the past couple of decades to diversify the area's economy. But mining remains an important pillar for the foundation of that economy.

Yet we are told that mining doesn't matter? Is that right?

Well, tell that to school districts that have suffered terrible declining enrollment.

Tell that to thousands of workers who lost their jobs.

Tell that to families that had to relocate out of the region because of a sour economy.

Tell that to city officials who have seen main street storefronts go vacant.

Tell that to retail and other businesses that have felt the pain of a difficult economy.

We strongly disagree with that part of the study's finding. Mining does matter. And these new-era mining initiatives matter greatly to the future of the region.

New-era mining: ‘We are not the old guard. We are the vanguard.’

Mesabi Daily News
October 6, 2007

The Iron Range is poised to enter a new era of mining that will rival or even exceed the impact that the transition from red ore to taconite had on the area, according to a spokesman for the PolyMet nonferrous operation at Hoyt Lakes.

And Warren Hudelson is adamant that the ghosts of past precious metals mining – sulfide mining – should not be allowed to corner the conversation on the issue or prevent any delay in advancing the $380 million open pit PolyMet project.

"We are not the old guard. We are the vanguard," he said.

But some environmental groups hear the word "sulfide" and it's the spirits of mining past they see, not Hudelson's view of a new-era much more transparent and high-tech envirionmentally-friendly operation.

And state lawmakers have heard rumblings of possible legislation in the 2008 session that would seek to ban sulfide mining in the state.

"We're not looking at any legislation specific to PolyMet. We're just concerned generally about sulfide mining. It's new to Minnesota and we need to be cautious," said Janette Brimmer, legal director for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy.

Brimmer said the officials of MCEA and its supporters have been "talking about it but haven't arrived yet" at whether to seek legislation to ban sulfide mining in Minnesota. "We're just mulling it right now," she said.

Frank Ongaro, executive director of MiningMinnesota which focuses solely on nonferrous metal mining, said that for any environmental group to go down that path would be a big mistake for the state overall and the Iron Range, which has been devastated economically over the years by mine closings and layoffs, in particular.

"Clearly Minnesota has the strictest process in place already to deal with any company in any industry to operate in the state. Clearly there is no need for additional restrictions on mining in the state of Minnesota. We have a strict process so let it work, especially now with some operations in mid-stream and planning to go forward," Ongaro said.

Supporters of nonferrous mining for copper, nickel, cobalt, platinum, palladium and small quantities of gold, point out the time is now to develop the Duluth Complex rich in precious metals because the global demand has never been better, prices ensure profitable operations and modern technology and mining practices are more environmentally sound.

Hudelson said the Duluth Complex, which includes the PolyMet operation at the former Erie Mining site in Hoyt Lakes and the Franconia Minerals Birch Lake and Maturi exploratory mining sites, is the third largest nonferrous vein in the world with only Sudbury, Canada, and Siberia in Russia larger.

"And the Duluth Complex is of low sulfide," Hudelson said, pointing out the sulfur content of the ore is in the 1 percent range, a far cry from 12 percent to 20 percent content of a proposed copper and zinc mine in Crandon, Wis.

Ernie Lehman of Franconia Minerals said the sulfur content at the proposed underground Birch Lake mining site is .05 to .08 percent. "And we're going to have everything sealed off after use," Lehman said.

Both PolyMet and Franconia would have at least a 20-year mining lifespan, quite possibly longer. Together they would provide more than 800 good-paying jobs that would pump a lot of economic life into the region and the state. Meanwhile, Duluth Metals, based in Toronto, is working to develop another ore reserve near Ely.

Supporters also point out the metals produced would be important for the country's economic and national security health because they are components in many electrical and computer products, surgical instruments, jet engines and catalytic converters.

But critics point to past sulfide mining excesses where there was harmful leeching into an area's groundwater.

"We're asking our geologists, our experts to study this and they are and will come back to us with recommendations. If I feel confident in what my experts say that it's OK, then we'll let it go. If not, there could be legislation proposed," Brimmer said.

And litigation?

"That's always a tool we have, but we try to use it sparingly," she said. Most recently, however, MCEA has filed suit against the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources regarding its role in studying the Minnesota Steel mini-mill/mine project for Nashwauk and approving permits for its go-ahead.

Brimmer, however, did say that PolyMet and Franconia officials have been forthcoming with information.

"Everytime we've asked for something they say yes. So far we haven't felt anything is being hidden," she said.

Hudelson gave a pretty much, "Of course," reply to such a statement. "We've been wide open from the start on all of this," he said, adding that the company has already put about $14 million into just environmental review on the project the past four years.

State Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said he's not surprised that there is chatter about possible legislation to prohibit sulfide mining in the state. "There's considerable bad history around sulfide mining. We need to make sure that this stuff won't leech into the watershed after the 20-year mine life is over," he said. "We want nonferrous mining and the jobs for the workers and communities, but we have to make sure it's safe."

Bakk said he's been told by company officials that lining the tailings basin is too costly. You can't tell me that's a deal-killer," he said.

Hudelson said there are alternative ways to get the same result with new technology and "that will be part of the company's draft EIS (Environmental Impact Statement) ready sometime before the end of the year."

Hudelson said that if any effort to stop the project by changing the rules now is successful the area will likely never again have the chance to move ahead with nonferrous mining.

"Minnesota has the toughest regulations there are for such projects," he said.

So, does the MCEA trust the Minnesota regulatory agencies the DNR and MPCA?

"I want to say yes, but our job is to be the public watchdog as well. We're cautious but certainly want to work with the MPCA," Brimmer said.

But Hudelson said what's not to trust with a project that has been so open regarding its operation.

"We're 80 percent there. This is all privately developed. We have 50 significant investors. Let's get going," Hudelson said.