Have one of three PolyMet hearings up on the Range

Mesabi Daily News
February 27, 2010

A legislative committee has scheduled three hearings on mining – most specifically proposed copper/nickel/precious metals mining on the eastern Iron Range – in Northeastern Minnesota.

And where are the hearings to be held? In St. Paul, of course. How convenient for well-funded environmental groups that reside for the most part in the Twin Cities while working with gusto to try to stop projects; try to stop jobs; try to do damage to communities of the Iron Range.

Similar hearings were held in late 2008, prior to the 2009 session. So now, as the PolyMet project nears a finish line for actual construction of the venture, which will create 400 permanent jobs, at least 500 spin-off jobs, 1.5 million hours of construction work and millions and millions and millions of payroll dollars for employees and millions and millions and millions more tax dollars that will flow to St. Paul, opponents have convinced some lawmakers that a redo of those past hearings is needed.

And as everyone must jump through legislative hoops once again, the environmental group opponents can hop in their vehicles for a short commute to the State Capitol. Meanwhile, those of us on the Iron Range who have the biggest stake in this issue, must rent buses or fill up the gas tanks of private cars and trucks for a 400-mile round trip to St. Paul at least once and perhaps twice for hearings that will occur on two different days.

We say bring at least one of those hearings up to the Range; up to the area where the project should already be producing minerals and paychecks should already be cashed.

Make at least one of these hearings about what should be the overriding issue – jobs.

Oh, we always hear from lawmakers in St. Paul and Washington that jobs is the No. 1 priority. OK, then back it up with a trip up north. Let's have a caravan of legislators and their staff members making the journey to the Range, so they can see first hand what this issue is really all about.

Let them not only hold the hearing at the PolyMet site – we say outside no matter the weather – but also take time to visit the Iron Range Food Shelf and assess just how great is the need for jobs in the area. Then go to the offices of the building trades and talk to some card-carrying union members about the construction market. Then visit some schools and get information of just how great has been the enrollment declines of the past decade.

Hold at least one of these hearings out amongst the people of the Iron Range. If these hearings are so important to you, then leave your plush surroundings at the State Capitol and get with the people of the state of the Iron Range to do this work. And maybe you bring some Twin Cities media with you so they can really assess first-hand the importance of this project and the overwhelming support it has of Iron Range people.

These hearings you are set to hold aren't about the Twin Cities or the halls of state government in St. Paul. They're about the Iron Range of Northeastern Minnesota and the people who live here.

So come on up. It's about time you were inconvenienced just a little bit. Lord knows the people of the Iron Range and all of rural Minnesota are inconvenienced enough by many of your actions.


Our view: PolyMet review: Working as intended

Duluth News Tribune
February 25, 2010

Anti-copper mining forces can take heart: The process to assure a responsible project is working just as it was supposed to.

Opponents railed for years that existing environmental laws would be powerless and that state and federal agencies would be unwilling to protect Northeastern Minnesota from this new kind of mining – with its less-than-stellar record and reputation. But this week, the largest environmental agency in the land has weighed in. And not with the rubber stamp some may have expected for the proposed PolyMet mine near Babbitt.

Rather, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, citing the state's stringent regulations, blasted the proposal, saying it could have "adverse environmental impacts." The U.S. EPA leveled its criticism in response to PolyMet's Draft Environmental Impact Statement, or DEIS, which, once accepted, is the company's publicly stated game plan for responsible operations and environmental sensitivity. But the DEIS, at this point, is "environmentally unsatisfactory," "inadequate" and "underestimate[s] water quality impacts," the EPA said in a letter dated Feb. 18.

The harsh words are an embarrassment to PolyMet, which should have known as well as the EPA what's allowable and what's unacceptable under state and federal environmental and other laws and regulations.

But the EPA's opinion doesn't kill PolyMet. Far from it. And that's good news for a region banking on the $600 million project to create hundreds of permanent jobs and to help usher in a more diversified Iron Range economy. In addition, other precious-metals mining operations, with promises of hundreds of more jobs, are lining up behind PolyMet.

The flagging of shortcomings during the review process could lead to an even stronger, more environmentally sensitive project – just as it should. Changes to address concerns already are being promised. PolyMet, on its Web site, said: "The Final EIS will likely incorporate many of the suggestions from the EPA and others that have been proposed during the public comment period." Added Frank Ongaro, president of the industry group Mining Minnesota: "I'm guessing that the EPA's concerns will be looked at and likely many of them will be addressed as the environmental review process moves forward."

PolyMet could be a boon for Northeastern Minnesota. But the project has to be done right and in a way that doesn't harm or pollute our corner of the world. The ongoing permitting and environmental-review process is working as designed to help make sure.

Nonferrous hearings in March

Mesabi Daily News
February 21, 2010

ST. PAUL – As the PolyMet copper/nickel/precious metals project nears the end of the state's long review process, a renewed push is being made in the Legislature on a bill that would require more financial assurance by mining companies and add more steps in the public comment process.

They are moves that critics say would delay PolyMet and other nonferrous projects and deprive the Iron Range of badly-needed jobs. 

There is little agreement between environmentalists and pro-mining advocates. 

Environmentalists refer to the process as "sulfide mining," a reference to the technique's main byproduct of sulfuric acid, which has impacted water supplies across the world and that they fear will pollute northern Minnesota. 

Pro-mining parties refer to it as the more technical "nonferrous mining." They argue that Minnesota's laws are adequate and that companies have created innovative techniques that will minimize pollution from an industry that by its very nature involves environmental impact.

Last year environmentalists proposed a similar restriction that critics blasted as a de facto ban on nonferrous mining. But the bill's authors say this year's measure removed language that could be construed as a ban and focuses more on putting Minnesota laws in line with federal regulations that guide this sort of mining on federal land. 

Although Minnesota already asks a deposit for nonferrous mining operations, the bill would increase the financial assurance paid by the companies, limit the forms of payment, and extend assurance to cover the cost of long-term water treatment. It also allows the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources more leeway in changing the amount of assurance if the level of potential damage rises, said Scott Strand, executive director of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. 

"You don't want to put the risk of making a mistake on the taxpayers," Strand said. "You want to put the risk of making a mistake on the mining companies."

The bill may have changed, but the Iron Range delegation's stance hasn't. Iron Rangers at the Capitol and mining interests say it's another attempt to prevent non-ferrous mining in the state. 

"They've changed it a bit, but I think the underlying issue is to make it too expensive to start the mining," said Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm. "There's more than enough guarantees and environmental considerations in Minnesota law right now that we don't need to be putting more stringent requirements in law that send negative messages to business."

Mine supporters were backed up in their claims by a recent Star Tribune editorial board opinion that said the bill was a "delaying tactic" for environmentalists.  

Strand, a former deputy counsel at the office of the Minnesota Attorney General, said the Star Tribune's argument was false, and that the revised statutes would actually help avoid lengthy court cases. 

But Frank Ongaro, executive director of MiningMinnesota, said the state's laws already require sufficient levels of assurance for nonferrous mining companies.

"The agencies have everything to assure that taxpayers in Minnesota don't have to pay a dime for any reclamation, if reclamation is even necessary," Ongaro said. "All that cost is covered upfront by bankruptcy-proof financial instruments as determined by the agency." 

Rep. Tom Anzelc, DFL-Balsam Township, said it would be safer to produce the minerals under the relatively strict laws here than in China or someplace else where environmental regulations are nonexistent. 

"We can safeguard the environment, the technologies that exist today make me much more comfortable than technologies that were used in other mineral developments in other places in the world," Anzelc said. "Nobody wants to harm our northern Minnesota environment." 

Like many issues at the Capitol this year, it boils down to jobs. 

"I believe the bill is an effort to kill these projects and would kill upwards of 1,000 jobs on the Iron Range once everything is said and done," Tomassoni said. 

But the bill's state Senate author, Sen. Jim Carlson, DFL-Eagan, said he wouldn't knowingly pursue a bill that hurt the Minnesota economy. 

"We need this kind of industry up there, there will be a lot of good jobs," Carlson said. "Once you open these mines you've started to have some environmental risk – and you really can't ignore it at that point, you'll have to address it – the best way to address it is right away." 


Hearings to be held in Senate 

The bill is similar to the one that disappeared without a hearing last year. But this year, they've managed to get hearings promised in Sen. Satveer Chaudhary's Environment and Natural Resources Committee, according to Strand. An assistant for Chaudhary confirmed the bill will likely be heard sometime in March, although they haven't yet arranged an exact date. 

Sen. Tom Saxhaug, DFL-Grand Rapids, is a member of that Senate committee. He said rural lawmakers on the committee will likely need to fight to convince some metro area senators to oppose the bill. 

"The story's been told and obviously it's got to be told a few more times; people in the metro, if they don't think they have the whole story, they're going to support the bill," Saxhaug said. "The way you avoid that is to get down here and educate them."

Chaudhary's committee will likely also set separate hearings to look at PolyMet project and the state's Environmental Impact Statement process, according to Chaudhary's office. 

Because it will be the first nonferrous mine in Minnesota, PolyMet has borne the brunt of much opposition. During the public comment period for the draft EIS that ended in early February, around 3,500 comments were filed with the agency. 

Ongaro said PolyMet has already gone through a $25 million, four-year long process with the state DNR and the US Army Corps of Engineers. 

"We sent the message to Chairman Chaudhary that there should be no hearings," Ongaro said. "It sends a terrible message to investors interested in investing in mining operations in Minnesota."

PolyMet's process is of comparable length to the recently permitted Kennecott Eagle non-ferrous mine in Michigan, which started around the same time. 

It's to be expected that mining companies want to avoid spending money on assurance, Carlson said. 

"It's the companies' fiduciary responsibility to avoid putting money in a fund like this," Carlson said. "It's our responsibility to bring up all of the other side's issues so that the taxpayers of Minnesota realize what we're getting into here." 

The final EIS will take a few months, followed by PolyMet's permit process. It's possible, Ongaro said, that if no new obstacles emerge, non-ferrous mines will be operating in the state by the end of the year. 

No members of the Iron Range delegation were contacted to contribute to the bill, although environmental advocates said they'd taken some advice offered last session.

Carlson said there was always the potential for a compromise that satisfies people on both sides of the debate, but that he understood why the Iron Range delegation so vehemently opposed restrictions on mines.

"If somebody came into my district and wanted to prevent an industry coming into my district," Carlson said, "I might do the same thing."

Kennecott continues its mining exploration Mixed results in Aitkin

Mesabi Daily News
February 20, 2010

TAMARACK, Minn. – Nonferrous mining giant Kennecott Rio Tinto is pursuing mineral drilling exploration in Northeastern Minnesota this winter while developing a copper-nickel mine in Upper Michigan.

Kennecott is using two state firms to handle the work at its Minnesota site in Aitkin and Carlton counties – Idea Drilling of Virginia and Longyear Co.

of Little Falls. Exploration has been ongoing since 2001.

Kennecott Rio Tinto geologist/project manager Robert Peter said Friday that this winter's campaign in eastern Aitkin County began in January and will close down in March, after three rigs have drilled 15-20 holes and 20,000 feet of core samples are taken. Drilling averages about 700 to 800 feet down, with the deepest going 2,200 feet down. Samples will be examined and logged, with some being sent for analysis.

"We have had very mixed results," Peter said, but added that the area holds prospective sites.

In 2008, one such site yielded a much higher grade of sample, so "the potential is real," he said.

A dozen persons work at Kennecott's office in Tamarack, with about nine of those locally hired. While the 2008-09 recession affected some parts of the operation, no employees at Tamarack were laid off.

"Things certainly slowed down a bit with the global economic crisis,"

Kennecott Community Relations Manager Matt Jeschke added.

Some nonferrous projects like Duluth Metals are actively exploring their Northeastern Minnesota parcels, while fledgling operation PolyMet is awaiting final environmental impact statement approval to go forward with permits.

"We're much further back," Peter acknowledged of Kennecott, in exploration.

If any mine did develop, much would depend upon the resources found to determine how processing would be shaped, whether a closed, hydrometallurgical circuit like the one PolyMet is planning, or by some other process.

"We would be considering all possibilities," Peter said.

Baseline environmental data is being collected for possible future use.

And while nickel and copper prices have come back a ways, "we aren't influenced by today's prices," and look instead to future prospects, Peter explained.

Support in the area for the Tamarack Project is positive, Jeschke said. "We definitely feel like a part of that community," he added.

Kennecott maintains an open-door policy at its Tamarack office at 150 Warren Street for anyone who wants to talk about issues or concerns.

The Kennecott Eagle Minerals Co. has received all of its permits to operate in Michigan's Upper Peninsula as of Feb. 9, at a former mining site called Humboldt Mill. The proposed copper-nickel mine the company plans to develop is near Marquette, Mich., while it maintains offices in Ishpeming.

Kennecott received a nonferrous metallic mine permit for general operations, a pollutant discharge elimination system permit for returning treated wastewater to the environment, an air use permit for air emissions and an inland lakes and streams permit for reactivating and improving the tailings reservoir, the company said in an online statement.

The mill will be used to crush and grind rock, with the goal of producing copper and nickel concentrates to send to processing facilities. A new water treatment plant will be built on the site to make sure water will meet quality standards.

The company said it plans to invest nearly $100 million in the brownfield redevelopment, and will employ 50 to 70 full-time plant workers and 200 workers during construction. A three-year construction plan will result in the Eagle Project coming into production in 2013.

Minnesota Lawmakers Propose Tougher Environmental Standards For Mines Tools

KBJR News 1
February 19, 2010

Minnesota lawmakers have crafted a bill that would require new mining companies to pay up front for any potential environmental cleanup after the plant closes.

The bill has been crafted as PolyMet works to get state approval to open a copper-nickel mine in Hoyt Lakes and several other mining companies assess copper-nickel deposits in the Northland.

LeAnn Wallace has that story for us tonight from the capitol.

"We have all the laws in place in Minnesota. We have very stringent environmental laws. They have been going through the environmental impact statement process for the last 4 and a half years."

Senator David Tomassoni of Chisholm says Minnesota laws are already strong in protecting the environment and he says Polymet has worked hard to adhere to those standards.

"They've spend over 20 million dollars to do it and do it right and we want to make sure it's done right."

The bill would require companies to provide up-front financial assurances for any site cleanup that might occur after the plant closes.

Paul Aasen of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy says the bill is designed to strengthen Minnesota's existing regulations by creating a damage deposit.

Some lawmakers say that this bill is being introduced to stop the project altogether.

"This particular bill comes in at the last hour and is, I believe it's an attempt to stop the project."

Representative Tom Rukavina of Virginia agrees and says the PolyMet project is important to the entire state's economy.

"We have a medical device industry in Minnesota that uses all kinds of copper and nickel and minerals that we could mine up in Northeastern Minnesota, and yet they don't understand that those metals have to come some where."

Environmental advocates are concerned acid run off from the mine could contaminate streams and rivers, damaging wildlife and the environment.

Iron Range lawmakers say current environmental standards are strong enough to prevent that from happening.

"This mine as it moves forward will be the most environmentally sound copper nickel mine I think in the world."

The Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy is hopeful the bill will be heard by the legislature the first week of March.

Chilean firm signs on with Nokomis mining project south of Ely

Duluth News Tribune
February 15, 2010

Duluth Metals entered a joint partnership last month with international mining company Antofagasta to help develop the 3,000-acre Nokomis mining project south of Ely.

Nokomis is considered to have the potential to be among the world’s largest nickel and copper reserves, and Antofagasta of Chile will initially contribute $130 million for a 40 percent interest in the project.

That amount will be spent on environmental engineering and permitting over the next three years, said Duluth Metals President and CEO Henry Sandri.

The partnership includes an option for Antofagasta to contribute up to $227 million and increase its holding to 65 percent.

“It gives more flexibility to the agreement so, in a roundabout way, essentially it’s a quarter of a billion dollars of money that can go into the advancement of the Nokomis deposit,” said Sandri from his Oakdale, Minn., office.

Sandri said the Nokomis mine has shown promising results in test drilling on 60 percent of the 3,000 acres in the last few years. Duluth Metals planned to add a third exploratory drilling rig last week.

“We have hit on 155 of 155 holes drilled,” Sandri said. “We have not missed yet.”

Sandri said under the current projection, Nokomis includes more than 900 million short tons of mineralized material.

“The other 40 percent is theoretically open for an extension of the same material,” Sandri said. “You can do the math on it. The potential to go above a billion tons is there.”

Duluth Metals’ base case calls for 20,000 tons to be mined per day, a rate that would take more than 100 years for the deposit to be exhausted, Sandri said. Another scoping study puts similar rates of return on 40,000 tons mined per day.

“We are nowhere near optimization rates on this project from a planning perspective at this point in time,” Sandri said. “That is one of the things that gave Antofagasta — as well as ourselves, of course — terms of the upside potential of this deposit. If it’s very good at 20,000 tons per day and improves at 40,000 tons, what happens when you come in and start to really beat the numbers and really working on them to lower your capital costs and keep your production high. None of that optimization has taken place.”

Upcoming work includes larger scale density tests of the material mined in the last two years to see whether it has the same concentration of copper and nickel as the smaller batch tests. Up to 30 tons will be ground up and processed, Sandri said.

Marty Vadis of the Lands and Minerals division of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources said Duluth Metals has been drilling on a number of locations in the Duluth Complex, an area of rock that stretches from near the Canadian border south to Duluth.

“The only activity that they have conducted so far is mineral exploration and the most advanced part of their exploration has been drilling,” Vadis said. “They have complied with the laws that we have here in the state with mineral exploration, and they have fulfilled all of their requirements and obligations in their drilling.”


Editorial: Don’t let new law slow PolyMet


Star Tribune
February 14, 2010

From President Obama to Gov. Tim Pawlenty, politicians everywhere have made jobs a top priority. A controversial mining bill will soon test how serious Minnesota legislators are about putting people back to work.

The bill — championed by Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, in the House, and Jim Carlson, DFL-Eagan, in the Senate — deals with a controversial new type of mine on the Iron Range. Called nonferrous or sulfide mining, it extracts from the region's ancient rocks metals vital to today's technology: copper, nickel and palladium. The Hausman and Carlson bill would unnecessarily tighten key financial requirements for these new mines and significantly delay one of the first projects, the PolyMet mine near Babbitt.

There's a lot of heated rhetoric and little middle ground when it comes to nonferrous mining. Despite advances in mining technology, many environmentalists speak of these operations in apocalyptic terms, believing that acid runoff will destroy northern Minnesota's wilderness, Lake Superior and the beloved Boundary Waters Canoe Area.

Proponents of nonferrous mining are just as passionate. Those on the Iron Range believe it's the economic salvation of this depressed region, as well as a state plagued with high unemployment. If the $600 million PolyMet project gets a permit, more mining projects are likely to follow, bringing hundreds, if not thousands, of good-paying jobs with them.

Unfortunately, both sides fall prey to this false conclusion: that it's a choice between jobs or the environment. The reality, at least when it comes to the Hausman and Carlson bill, is that there's an opportunity here to strike a balance between the state's environmental and economic needs.

Legislators contemplating the bill should come to this pragmatic conclusion: The bill isn't needed. The additional safeguards it calls for to ensure mining companies can't shed environmental cleanup costs through bankruptcy are a delaying tactic proposed by environmental advocates. The state already has strong regulations in place that deal with this — regulations that were put in place in the 1990s with input from environmentalists, regulators and legislators.

Minnesota's regulations already require the coverage and assure that these funds are bankruptcy-proof. The requirements are reviewed annually and adjusted if necessary.

Changes proposed by environmentalists include specifying acceptable forms of financial assurance (cash or bonds, for example), moving up the timetable for providing financial assurance details and making financial assurance adjustments more public. Good changes, yes. But essential? No, not in Minnesota, a state with a long history of tough regulators, tough environmental laws and vigilant advocates. That's also the conclusion of many political leaders, including the Iron Range's congressman, Democratic Rep. James Oberstar, whose credibility on environmental issues is underscored by his leadership on strengthening the federal Clean Water Act.

Changing the rules could delay PolyMet by one to two years as bureaucrats shuffle through the lengthy rulemaking process. Local venture capitalists say the delay could also put a chill on investors' willingness to fund other new mines. The reality is that Minnesota needs the jobs these projects will bring. Leaving already solid financial assurance regulations in place strikes a balance between the state's economic and environmental needs. More challenges yet lie ahead for PolyMet, which deserves the scrutiny it's getting, but this is one hurdle that shouldn't slow it down.

Our view: Critics can help assure PolyMet gets done right

Duluth News Tribune
February 8, 2010

He spent his life fighting for the environment, including as national president of the Izaak Walton League and as an activist who helped push through the federal Clean Water Act. So Dave Zentner of Duluth could be expected to be first in line in opposing the PolyMet project, which is poised to mine copper, nickel and other precious metals on the Iron Range. But Zentner isn't in line. In fact, rather than opposing PolyMet, he's advocating for safeguards and for financial assurances now, before mining begins, to prevent problems and to take care of messes once mining ends.

He spent his life fighting for the environment, including as national president of the Izaak Walton League and as an activist who helped push through the federal Clean Water Act. So Dave Zentner of Duluth could be expected to be first in line in opposing the PolyMet project, which is poised to mine copper, nickel and other precious metals on the Iron Range.

But Zentner isn't in line. In fact, rather than opposing PolyMet, he's advocating for safeguards and for financial assurances now, before mining begins, to prevent problems and to take care of messes once mining ends.

"The Izaak Walton League wants the project done right," Zentner said during a meeting last month with the News Tribune editorial board.

So do we.

And so does the state of Minnesota, apparently, which requires bankruptcy-proof financial assurances, up front, from all mining companies to cover the possibility of an environmental clean-up later.

No financial assurance, no mining permit, according to state rules adopted in the early 1990s. The rules followed years of study that included input from environmental groups.

The state further requires an annual review of potential environmental cleanup costs and can adjust mining companies' financial obligations accordingly. Any company that doesn't comply with financial and other requirements of its permit can have its permit denied or revoked. The state could even level civil penalties.

How much a mining company is required to set aside at the outset is determined during the permitting process, which hasn't yet begun for PolyMet. The amount is determined by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and, again, can be readjusted annually.

"Minnesota has some of the strictest environmental standards in the country," the pro-nonferrous mining group MiningMinnesota said in a statement provided the News Tribune Opinion page. "The state's regulatory agencies work every day to protect our state's natural environment through comprehensive research, permitting and monitoring processes."

Zentner suspects $1 billion, and perhaps even $2 billion, will be needed from PolyMet to mitigate potential environmental and other problems once its operations cease. Although he wants the project done right, he remains skeptical it can be. He worries, too, that PolyMet will sell its mining operations once permits are acquired and that, somehow, the new owners will be able to skirt the state's rules.

"Large corporations are continuously and successfully able to have more power than state government and to shed their responsibility," Zentner said. "We're surrounded by examples of where the system has not worked."

Few can deny the upside of a successful PolyMet project. The precious metals it'll produce are needed for many everyday items, including electronics and jewelry. Those precious metals often come from foreign countries devoid of environmental protections. The result is a horrific environmental record for nonferrous mining. Thousands of badly needed, good-paying construction jobs and permanent positions are at stake as other companies plan to follow PolyMet in mining the third-largest nickel deposit in the world. And PolyMet would bring back to life the former LTV taconite plant near Hoyt Lakes.

Will PolyMet be done right? State rules, including financial assurances, are in place to make sure. And skeptics like Dave Zentner are certain to watchdog the project to make doubly sure.

Permits Drag on U.S. Mining Projects

Wall Street Journal
February 8, 2010

Despite having vast reserves, the U.S. remains a major importer of metals and minerals.

Obtaining the permits and approvals needed to build a mine in the U.S. takes an average of seven years, among the longest wait time in the world. So despite having vast underground stores of raw materials, the U.S. is one of the last places miners go to start a project.

At the proposed Kennecott Eagle nickel mine in Michigan’s sparsely populated Upper Peninsula, the wait is at seven years and growing. Global miner Rio Tinto says the project would fill a raw-material gap in the U.S. economy, but the company has yet to produce an ounce of nickel there.

Last month, a state agency issued a final order making state water, air and mine permits effective, but Rio still needs a federal water permit. And the company expects challenges from environmental groups.

Overall, the U.S. is tied with Papua Guinea for the longest approval process among the 25 top mining countries in the world, according to Hagstrom, an international mining and mineral advisory group. In Australia, a huge mining center, the process takes an average of one to two years.

The length of the mine-approval process means that the U.S., while having the reserves as well as the market appetite for metals and minerals, remains one of the top importers of the materials from Australia, Brazil, Canada and Africa.

“We are becoming more and more dependent on metal imports in the U.S.,” said Luke Popovich, spokesman for the National Mining Association, an industry group. Imports into the U.S. for selected metals-including gold, copper and zinc-rose 8.7% from 1998 to 2008, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

The time frame in the U.S. isn’t necessarily reflective of tougher laws. Australia and Canada have environmental laws for mine building that are on par with U.S. rules. But mine building often draws more opposition in the U.S. than in those countries. Part of that is due to mining’s checkered history and reputation for pollution, abandonment and sometimes-shoddy management. Mining companies in the U.S., have cleaned up their management for the most part, but reputations haven’t caught up.

Emily Bernhardt, ecologist and assistant professor at the biology department at Duke University, says a focus on the length of the permitting process in the U.S. is misplaced. “The length of time it takes for permitting is almost irrelevant because they are not always looking at the right issues,” she said.

This month, Ms. Bernhardt co-authored a scientific paper calling on the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers to stay all new mountaintop mining permits. One issue is the permits focus on mainly local mining-site environmental impacts but don’t take into account impacts far from the mine site, she said.

Minerals are critical to economies, as raw materials for power stations, bridges, cars, appliances and computers. They are limited by nature and can’t be mass produced. Having a domestic source means lower distribution and shipping costs. And mines generate jobs and taxes.

But mines also permanently change a landscape and community with new roads, heavy equipment and traffic. Their impact on water sources is increasingly being scrutinized both in local communities and through regulation and court processes. Environmentalists, conservationists and some scientists are studying whether minerals leaching into water systems can harm water purity or cause health problems. Other concerns for underground mining include the creation of sinkholes, soil contamination, loss of biodiversity and erosion for which erosion control solutions should be put in place.

Mining companies contend that laws and processes in place mitigate most of these concerns. They also say that a balance has to be struck between leaving land untouched and providing needed materials. But most people simply don’t want a mine near where they live.

“Folks say it is just a little mine, but it is a loss of a place that I find so compelling a reason to stand up for,” said Cynthia Pryor, a spokesman for the Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve, dedicated to stopping the Michigan nickel mine. “There is timber and blueberry and hunting and all the things that are of value to a local community.”

J. Murray Gillis, who teaches on mining issues at Michigan Technological University, says such concerns are often misplaced, noting that mining companies put up bond money to restore land.

“Mining companies have such great restrictions and everybody is watching them,” he said.

Ms. Bernhardt, the ecologist, said mining companies, in general, have done what they have been asked to do but that the permitting process is flawed. “What the permits are allowing to happen, as in mitigating damage from mining, is not in fact mitigating damage,” she said.

Seven years ago, Rio began working on developing the nickel reserve in the Upper Peninsula. It was considered ideal because it is concentrated in a relatively definable area. The 90-acre project anticipates 500 construction jobs and about 200 long-term jobs, both welcome in the Upper Peninsula, where unemployment stands at around 20%. The proposed mine is located underground, below a river bed.

Rio has obtained dozens of permits from several local, state and federal bodies that regulate water, air and pollution. Mining companies generally have to provide air- and water-quality samples, survey maps of potential water leaching, wastewater storage and plans for reclamation, such as reseeding of vegetation.

Rio says it will continue its efforts until the mine is opened. “Mining companies have to go where the minerals are,” said a spokeswoman for Rio’s Michigan project.

Franken Talks Job Creation in Duluth

KBJR News 1
February 6, 2010

Duluth, Minn. — Fresh-off his latest tour of Northeastern MN, U.S. Senator Al Franken talked job-creation in Duluth today.

Franken spoke with Iron Range business leaders at the annual Hibbing Chamber of Commerce Dinner yesterday. Today, he gave an exclusive interview at Northland's NewsCenter in Duluth.

The Junior Senator's tone: that of hope, and legislative ambition.

"This isn't one of these dieing industrial towns," Franken said, regarding Duluth's economy.

"Quite the opposite, this town is being revitalized. And it's being revitalized by the mayor, by the city council, by the county commissioners," he said.

Franken met with Duluth business leaders and Mayor Don Ness earlier today. His agenda focused promoting federal initiatives designed to stimulate job growth.

"Right now we're seeing some growth in the economy. But we're not seeing enough people being hired," Franken said, regarding the meeting.

Franken's top priority: advertising his strategy for spending the Federal bail-out money Wall-Street banks are required to pay back. Officially, his legislation is titled the S.E.E.D Act, but he calls it "Cash For Jobs."

Franken says if signed into law, the plan would enable private employers to accept government wage-matching of up to for 6 months for each new employee hired.

"It's a wage subsidy," Franken explains. "5 billion dollars in TARP funds will go to wage subsidies paying for 50 percent of a new employee's wages up to $12 an hour."

With those matching funds, Franken calculates job growth will increase by 500,000 new jobs nationally, with 15,000 jobs created here in Minnesota.

Franken's legislative ambitions also extend into health-care reform and the support of industry throughout Northern Minnesota. Other topics important to the first term DFL'er include new mining opportunities represented by the controversial PolyMET plant and the continued taconite mining conducted by Essar Steel.

"I believe we can accomplish these projects in a responsible manner and in an environmentally safe manner too," he said. "We have to."

On his tour, Franken also spoke with representatives of Lutheran Social Services in Duluth and made a stop at local restaurant "Hell's Kitchen."

"The role of the government is to create an environment where the marketplace works," Franken noted.