Non-ferrous mining in Minnesota is good for global environment

Center of the American Experiment
March 25, 2010

In recent years, PolyMet Mining and other companies have been exploring for non-ferrous (non-iron) minerals on the Iron Range. PolyMet is the closest to beginning extraction on a commercial, rather than just exploratory, basis.

Consequently, while environmental extremist special interests have been vocal in opposition even to exploration in pursuit of new mining opportunities, they have taken an especially hysterical and fear-mongering tone in trying to thwart PolyMet's efforts.

Like U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, U.S. Rep. James Oberstar, and Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Center of the American Experiment has taken a commonsense conservationist approach to the issue of nonferrous mining in Minnesota.

PolyMet will provide a domestic supply of metals that Americans use every day-nickel, copper, gold, platinum, and palladium-in cell phones, computers, catalytic converters, electric cars, wind turbines, and medical devices. The global environmental and domestic economic impact of producing these critical metals here, and having to import less from elsewhere, will be very positive.

After all, avoiding mining in Minnesota won't reduce American or global demand. By mining here in Minnesota, we can ensure control of the operations and responsible stewardship.  This is an holistic approach to the global environment that stands in contrast to that of the environmental extremists, who often pretend to think globally but actually act selfishly.

PolyMet's operation in Minnesota stands to be a model for the world. It would be the epitome of good stewardship envisioned by our nation's great progressive conservationist forebears, like Teddy Roosevelt, who fought for the establishment of the national forest system for just such wise-use applications as this.

Center of the American Experiment has submitted comments to the State in support of the PolyMet proposal and has authored op-eds in the Star Tribune and elsewhere.

Geologist eyeballs 1 million feet of rock

Duluth News Tribune
March 23, 2010

Mark Severson is seen in his early years of drill core analysis at the Department of Natural Resources Drill Core Library in Hibbing. (Submitted photo) Mark Severson has been studying northern Minnesota rock for 23 years, one foot at a time, more than 1 million times.

Severson, a geologist with the University of Minnesota Duluth's Natural Resources Research Institute, looks at core samples of rock drilled from across Northeastern Minnesota's so-called Duluth Complex – the billion-year-old rock formation now known to hold billions of dollars worth of copper, nickel, platinum and other valuable metals.

"His work is really the impetus for all the activity we are seeing up there now. It's the basis for the all the exploration,'' said Steve Hauck, NRRI deputy director of the Economic Geology Group.

On March 11, about 10 miles west of Hoyt Lakes, Severson eyeballed his one-millionth foot of core sample rock, all the while keeping track of the trace elements of minerals he saw and noting where the samples came from.

That's 190 miles of 2-inch-diameter cylinders of rock that would stretch from Duluth to Faribault.

Experts say Severson has plotted the roadmap of sorts showing where the richest and most accessible minerals are located, and it's his work that prospectors and mining companies use when they decide where to stake their claim and look for a place to dig a mine.

Rich Patelke, chief geologist for PolyMet Mining Co., said the company doesn't always know what they'll find when they drill test holes at their proposed mine site. But it's usually pretty close to what Severson guesses beforehand.

"Imagine walking from Hoyt Lakes to Minneapolis and being able to describe, after the trip, the white line along the highway the entire way,'' Patelke said. "Mark's got an incredible skill, an eye and a visual memory that can't be beat. He remembers what he saw years ago.''

Many of the core samples Severson has examined were drilled in the 1960s but cast aside as being not valuable enough to warrant further exploration, let alone mining. Other samples, such as those Severson was studying Monday at PolyMet's proposed operations, were just recently drilled as companies try to pinpoint the richest deposits and map their mine sites.

Patelke said Severson was the first to understand the various layering patterns of valuable minerals and how they correlate "from drill hole to drill hole to drill hole.''

"The earlier work just wasn't recognizing the geological continuity between holes,'' Patelke said.

Severson said he wasn't sure if the large amounts of lower-grade metals he was finding in core samples would ever be worth the effort to mine. Now, a half-dozen companies are planning copper-nickel mines, based in large part on what he found.

"I always wondered if this would happen, if they could develop what we were finding down there,'' Severson said Monday. "What's happened is that the technology to pull the ore out of the rock cleanly and economically has finally caught up. … It took all these years for that to happen.''

Since 1987 Severson has logged thousands of hours studying the slender cylinders of rock. The samples, broken into manageable lengths, originally ranged from 50 to more than 5,000 feet long. Most were stored at the state Department of Natural Resources storage facility in Hibbing. But Severson also has studied core samples outdoors at the drilling sites and inside high-tech labs.

Usually, though, his work has been dusty and lonely, with more mice than people as company.

"I was looking in one warehouse outside when it was 20 below zero and all I had for light and heat was my Coleman lantern,'' Severson said.

Severson is now confident that mining companies will be able to develop environmentally safe mines to extract copper, nickel and other metals in Minnesota. That's at least in part because his work has helped them avoid rock with high sulfide levels that might spur sulfuric acid runoff into local waterways.

"If they clear the environmental hurdles – and they should – I think they [planned copper mines] will be developed,'' he said. "It's looking good.''

PolyMet officials seek to reassure investors

The Timberjay
March 19, 2010

PolyMet officials have sought to quell rising concern among investors in recent days about the impact of potential delays in permitting of their proposed NorthMet mining operation near Hoyt Lakes.

Fears about possible lengthy delays arose in February after the federal Environmental Protection Agency issued one of its lowest ratings possible to the draft Environmental Impact Statement, which was released late last year.

Since news of the Feb. 18 letter from the EPA first broke, PolyMet's stock price, which had peaked at $3.76 a share in mid-January, quickly fell to a low of $2.09 a share by March 5. The stock has recovered somewhat since, but remained below the $2.40 mark as of Thursday.

Company officials, in a statement issued Monday, acknowledged that the uncertainty surrounding the draft EIS has raised questions from investors about the prospects for a speedy conclusion of the environmental review and permitting process.

"Since the end of the comment period in early February, we have received many questions about both the process and the timeline to complete the environmental review," said PolyMet CFO Douglas Newby. "The process is determined by the state and federal agencies leading the work, so any opinions on the timeline are personal and speculative. However, in response to concerns whether a delay could be measured in years, I expressed my opinion that any delay is likely to be measured in months."

In a separate statement, Joe Scipioni, PolyMet president and chief executive officer was less definitive. "At this time, the company does not know what the process of completion of environmental review implies for the project timeline. As soon as these details are made known to the company so that we can determine their impact on project scheduling, the company will make a public statement."

Company officials stress that the project's fundamentals remain "robust," but the response to the EIS from the EPA and other agencies has raised serious questions about just how much additional work may need to be completed before a final EIS can be issued.

EPA not alone in its criticism

While the EPA's criticism has received much media coverage, other agencies have been equally harsh. The Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, a coalition of 11 Ojibwe bands including Fond du Lac, was sharply critical in a 55-page comment letter issued Feb. 3. The Fond du Lac Band is a cooperating agency in the EIS process, but it does not have veto power in the decision on whether or not a final EIS can be issued.

The GLIFWC letter identifies a long list of concerns, but among the most basic is the contention that the project, as proposed, cannot be permitted under either state or federal law- a view shared by the EPA.

In addition, GLIFWC officials say the current EIS fails to meet federal requirements under the National Environmental Policy Act (or NEPA) for several reasons, including the lack of consideration of financial assurance, the lack of an adequate closure plan, and over-reliance on professional opinion, rather than data, in making conclusions. The tribal agency also criticized the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the Army Corps of Engineers for selective editing of information and comments. "We observe that in several areas, the DEIS excludes previously established information that depicts the project in an unfavorable light. Previous versions of the DEIS indicated that the proposed tailings basin design is not adequate and likely to fail. While this is still the case, the DEIS that was released to the public has omitted that language," stated tribal officials.

"That's their opinion," said John Ahlness, project manager with the Army Corps of Engineers, in response to the GLIFWC letter. "We certainly accept and take input from cooperators, but we make the final decision," he said, referring to the Army Corps and the DNR, which are jointly serving as lead agencies in the EIS process. Ahlness suggested the joint nature of the EIS could be leading to some confusion about which parts are subject to federal rules and which to state law. He said the Army Corps, which is a federal agency, is primarily considering wetland impacts and mitigation, while issues like mine closure and financial assurance for ongoing water quality concerns are subject to DNR oversight and state environmental review regulations.

While both the EPA and GLIFWC have criticized the draft EIS for failure to incorporate financial assurance, Ahlness said that issue never came up in two previous environmental reviews over expansion of the Acelor-Mittal mine near Virginia and the Essar Steel operation near Nashwauk. "That was never raised until the permitting stage," said Ahlness.

The world needs the metals of northeastern Minnesota

Minnesota Public Radio
March 16, 2010

Mother Nature has endowed northern Minnesota with not only pristine lakes and forests, but also with incredible mineral resources. While mining of the iron ores of the Mesabi Range has supported the economy of northern Minnesota and built the steel infrastructure of much of our nation for over 125 years, a new type of mineral resource — rich in copper, nickel and precious metals — is being considered for development at the east end of the Mesabi Range.

With the public release of the draft environmental impact statement (EIS) for the PolyMet project late last year, an intense debate has ensued about the wisdom of mining this type of ore deposit.

Unfortunately, the debate has largely settled on what I see as a false choice — jobs or the environment (see the MPRNewsQ Today's Question for March 10). Responsible stewardship requires an honest and informed discussion about how, where and when to develop our resources for current and future generations.

I would argue that when all facts are considered, responsible and forward-thinking stewardship compels us to develop these metal resources with the highest environmental standards and to do so now. As a geologist, I will leave discussion of the potential economic impact of this development to the economists and the potential environmental pitfalls to the environmental engineers. Instead, I will focus largely on the geology of this special metallic resource.

Trace amounts of metals occur in every type of earth material, but their occurrence near the Earth's surface where we can get at them is rare, especially in concentrations sufficient to economically extract and refine.

The deposits of copper, nickel and precious metals situated near Babbitt and Hoyt Lakes occur along the margin of an enormous igneous mass called the Duluth Complex, which underlies most of northeastern Minnesota.

These ore deposits formed over a billion years ago, when metal-bearing magmas came into contact with sulfur-bearing rocks a couple of miles below the surface. Subsequent erosion has now exposed these deposits along a 40-kilometer band that runs adjacent to the eastern end of the Mesabi Range. What these geologic processes have produced is one of the largest undeveloped metal deposits on Earth, with significant amounts of copper, nickel and precious metals (mostly palladium, platinum and gold).

Copper, nickel and palladium are metals that are fundamental to living in a modern world and will be even more important as we move into a green economy. All these metals are key components in hybrid cars and wind turbines, for example. Hybrid cars contain about 75 pounds of copper, compared to 40-50 pounds in a standard automobile. All-electric cars will use even more.

Like other earth resources, all these metals are non-renewable (we can't grow more). But unlike petroleum, most base and precious metals are largely recyclable and reusable. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the United States consumed over 3 million tons of copper in 2008, of which 31 percent came from recycled scrap and 33 percent from imports. Most nickel is used in stainless steel and metal alloys to make them strong and corrosion-resistant. The United States consumed over 200,000 tons of nickel in 2008, all of it from imported or recycled sources. Palladium, the main precious metal in Duluth Complex ores, is primarily used in catalytic converters to clean pollutants from car exhaust.

Today, about two-thirds of the world's palladium comes from the Noril'sk deposit in Russia. Ironically, more than half of the sulfur dioxide pollution in the northern hemisphere in the 1990s was traced to Soviet-era smelters that liberated this "environmental metal" from its sulfur host by "roasting" sulfide ores. Thankfully, new metal sulfide mines are adopting recently developed hydrometallurgical technologies to separate metals from sulfur. Rather than allowing the sulfur to escape into the atmosphere as sulfur dioxide or into the ground as sulfuric acid, this new process oxidizes the sulfur with lime to create calcium sulfate. This is a material that literally surrounds us. Also known by its mineral name — gypsum — it is the main component of wall board.

The mining of these metals is commonly referred to as "sulfide mining," though the material being sought is not the sulfur, but rather the metals that are bound to sulfur in sulfide minerals. One of the little mentioned realities of this debate is that sulfur is the reason these metal deposits even exist. Sulfur is the main concentrator of most metals on earth. To get access to these necessary metals, we have little choice but to mine sulfide ore deposits. The challenge is to figure out how to do this in ways that minimize the impact on our environment now and into the future.

The anti-mining message is simple and easy — Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid. It offers us another false choice — prevent mining and save our precious wilderness, or allow mining and almost assuredly guarantee its destruction. The detractors' main argument against mining relies on pointing out the many mistakes and irresponsible behavior made by mining companies throughout the 20th century, which most companies now readily admit to and are working diligently to rectify.

The mining companies have no one but themselves to blame for the negative perception that most people have of them. However, this backward-looking approach alone doesn't help us in fully assessing the risks and benefits of the current situation. I would pose a few questions that we should also consider if we are to act as responsible stewards of ALL of the precious resources with which our state has been endowed:

Is it responsible (and moral) stewardship to rely on the rest of the world to supply our resource needs, especially from countries with abysmal environmental standards, especially when we are one of the world's principal consumers, and especially when we are sitting on one of the largest metal deposits on earth?

Is it responsible stewardship to delay the inevitable mining of this enormous resource while the infrastructure and workforce for mining exists today in northern Minnesota? Because someday this world class ore deposit will be mined; that's guaranteed. Doesn't it make more sense to mine the copper, nickel and precious metals now, while the 100-year-old taconite industry next door continues its operations for another half century?

Is it responsible stewardship to make the false claim that environmental devastation is inevitable? It will happen only if all the stakeholders in this endeavor — the mining companies, the state and federal regulators and the citizens of Minnesota — allow it to. We are all obligated to see that this resource is developed responsibly and with the highest environmental standards.

Indeed, we have the opportunity here to show the rest of the world how it's done. And when it is done, we can reclaim and restore this area to its natural state and pass it on to future generations as a legacy of our responsible stewardship.


Jim Miller is an associate professor of geology at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. He has studied the geology and mineral deposits of the Duluth Complex for over 30 years.

Senator pulls mining bill

Duluth News Tribune
March 11, 2010

ST. PAUL – A senator pushing a bill to increase financial oversight and protect the environment as a new type of mining develops in northern Minnesota abruptly withdrew the measure Wednesday night.

In front of a busload of Iron Range residents who opposed the bill, fearing it would hurt the chance for a new mine, Sen. Jim Carlson pulled the bill from consideration after a Senate committee spent 12 hours discussing the issue this week.

Carlson said that he was unsure whether he had the votes for the bill to proceed.

"I feel good that we had a good hearing," he said. "This was one of the best fact-finding meetings we've had in a long time."

Carlson acknowledged that environmental advocates are disappointed with his decision. But, he added, his bill would have done less to restrict a proposed copper and nickel mine than a draft Environmental Impact Statement that some say could not stand up in court.

"This is not going anywhere until those questions are answered," he said.

The committee had spent hours looking into nonferrous mining in two Monday meetings and nearly five hours Wednesday night.

Carlson, DFL-Eagan, pulled the bill just before 10 p.m., after the committee heard discussion of the Environmental Protection Agency's concerns about PolyMet Mining Corp.'s draft EIS and Carlson's bill aimed at firming up the level of financial assurances mining companies must present before they can open a nonferrous mine, such as those that would produce copper and nickel.

PolyMet officials and other mine supporters say the protections sought under Carlson's bill are duplicative and could delay or kill the project, thus putting hundreds of jobs at risk.

The discussion stems from several proposed plans for nonferrous mining projects in northern Minnesota. Furthest along is PolyMet, which is closing in on permits and approvals necessary for opening the state's first such mine.

Wednesday night's committee meeting came in front of a packed Capitol committee room, with some people forced to listen to the proceedings in other parts of the Capitol. Most in the committee room opposed Carlson's bill and live near where PolyMet and other companies propose mines.

PolyMet has spent more than $25 million and nearly four years on the permitting process for its copper and nickel mine. The company expects the $602 million project, at the eastern end of the Mesabi Iron Range, to create $242 million in economic impact for St. Louis County and establish hundreds of stable jobs.

Carlson said he supports nonferrous mining and would rather speed up the project than slow or stop PolyMet's project.

"If this was to stop mining I wouldn't be involved," he said.

Carlson added that each entity involved in the project must reduce the risks associated with this new type of mining, which in some areas has been reported to produce large levels of sulfuric acid.

He acknowledged that many aspects of the project are regulated in existing rules. His bill aims to take those state and federal rules and put them into a state law dealing specifically with nonferrous mining to protect taxpayers in the event a mining company pollutes the land, shuts its doors and tries to leave town.

Supporters of Carlson's bill say mining companies have a history of polluting the land and sticking taxpayers with the cleanup costs.

Steve Morse, executive director of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, said he recognizes that mining is and will be a vital part of Minnesota's economy.

He reiterated that Carlson's bill doesn't deal specifically with PolyMet but with protecting taxpayers with that and similar nonferrous projects.

"This is not jobs vs. the environment," he said. "This is about how we move forward in a way that is protective of the environment."

Marlene Pospeck, mayor of Hoyt Lakes, where the PolyMet project would be located, said the bill could delay it by up to two years if not kill it all together.

She asked the committee to stop the road blocks "and let PolyMet get on with it."

"Hundreds of livable-wage jobs hang in the balance," she said.

Kelly Payne, manager of environmental remediation for Rio Tinto, which also is exploring mining in northern Minnesota, said the company has several concerns about the bill, particularly its move to disallow the use of letters of credit and surety bonds.

Payne said the company posted an $18 million surety bond on a recently permitted nickel, copper, sulfide mine in Michigan to cover remediation and would expect a similar requirement in Minnesota based on existing statutes.

Andrew Tellijohn works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the News Tribune.

PolyMet bill pulled after three hearings

Mesabi Daily News
March 10, 2010

ST. PAUL – After three hearings and dozens of testimonies this week, a bill that would have put more restrictions on nonferrous mining in Minnesota was withdrawn by its author after an almost five-hour hearing. 

At the third hearing on nonferrous mining at the state Capitol, every seat was filled. But as the hearing stretched into its fourth hour, both mining supporters and environmentalists hunched into their chairs, played with phones and blinked their eyes awake. 

The first two hours of the hearing reviewed the Draft Environmental Impact Statement process used by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources for the PolyMet project near Hoyt Lakes. Environmentalists fear the project will pollute water with sulfuric acid while mining supporters say current standards are adequate and that project will bring 400 full-time jobs, hundreds more in spin-off jobs and 1.5 million hours of construction work.  

Steve Colvin of the DNR said the project leads realized that the Draft EIS would need to represent both federal and state standards only in fall 2009. 

Because of the environmentally unsatisfactory score awarded to the draft, Colvin said the DNR and Army Corps of Engineers will be working with the Environmental Protection Agency to meet all those standards. 

"The EPA will commit expertise and resources to help complete the final EIS." Colvin said. 

When pressed to give a timeline by Sen. Tom Saxhaug, DFL-Grand Rapids, Colvin declined. 

"We want to do things as expeditiously as we can but we also want to do things as legally defensible as we can," Colvin said. 

Chair of the Senate Committee on Environment and Natural Resources, Sen. Satveer Chaudhary, DFL-Fridley, said both the EPA and the Army Corps declined to testify at the hearing. 

Representatives from the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy presented the critique of the Draft EIS. 

Steve Thorne of the MCEA said the higher level of assurance was part of a trend that originated from the closure of Reserve and LTV mines and pollution of Silver Bay. 

MCEA Executive Director Scott Strand said it had been misrepresented that the Draft EIS was only a preliminary statement and that the DNR didn't need to meet federal standards. "Any major mining project in Minnesota is going to be handled by a joint state-federal impact statement," Strand said. 

The DNR doesn't have the ability to decide whether or not to address federal concerns, Strand said. 

Those comments raised the ire of Sen. Kenneth Kelash, DFL-Minneapolis. 

"This is an attack on the quality of people working for the DNR," Kelash said. "You're assuming that they're doing something wrong rather than that they're doing their jobs." 

Kelash continued with a raised voice until both the chair and another senator reminded him of Senate rules to "treat all those before us with respect and dignity." 

It wasn't until almost 8 p.m. that the actual bill finally made an appearance.

Authored in the Senate by Sen. Jim Carlson, DFL-Eagan, it would increase the financial deposits required of non-ferrous mining companies before a project could permit it. 

Carlson said he wouldn't have sponsored the bill if he believed it would delay or prevent mining projects the state depends on for jobs.

Testimony came from representatives of business, mining, and building trades, all of whom opposed the bill. 

The Minnesota Environmental Partnership testified in support of the bill Wednesday – most environmental advocates testified Monday night.  

Three local officials from the Iron Range also testified. 

Hibbing Mayor Rick Wolff said his city has been losing population because of the scarcity of jobs. 

"This is not a thing about the environment versus jobs," Wolf said. "But I do think jobs are part of the equation and do have to be factored into the decisions that are made." 

Marlene Pospeck, mayor of Hoyt Lakes, said the legislation was not necessary. 

"This is yet another delay tactic proposed by environmentalists hell-bent on stopping mining altogether," Pospeck said. "Hundreds of living wage jobs hang in the balance." 

Carlson said that regardless of the fate of the bill, the jobs aren't going to start right away. He said the EIS still needed a lot of work before it was approved by the federal agencies.

"This is not something that's going to be a snap of the fingers."


Mining industry’s view: Benefits are enormous, risks addressed

Duluth News Tribune
March 10, 2010

Everything we hear from government these days is all about jobs. At the federal level, members of Congress want to create jobs. At the state level, our Legislature wants to see jobs in Minnesota. Given the fact there are more than 200,000 people claiming unemployment texas, it is no wonder. There is a very good reason for this desire to have jobs. We all know it's the only way to generate revenue and to establish a base for future fiscal stability.

Fortunately, we have a tremendous opportunity to create thousands of new jobs in the next generation of mining: Minnesota's non-ferrous industry.

The first project, PolyMet Mining, is ready to go, and the benefits are great. The PolyMet project's $600 million capital investment alone would require 1.5 million hours of work by skilled trades workers over two years. When fully operational, there would be 400 full-time jobs with an annual payroll of nearly $40 million. Supplier and vendor spin-off jobs, according to the University of Minnesota Duluth, would create an additional 500 jobs in St. Louis County, adding another $242 million to our economy.

As a result, there would be tens of millions of dollars in tax revenue generated for cities, schools and the state each year. As Minnesota struggles economically, these benefits from mining are extremely important.

Risks also are being addressed. Minnesota already has a demanding environmental-review and permitting process. This comprehensive process assures all companies are required to meet Minnesota's strict environmental standards, making sure our air quality, water quality and taxpayers are protected. If any company doesn't, it doesn't receive permits.

In addition, for non-ferrous mining operations specifically, before a company can receive a "Permit to Mine," Minnesota requires an "up-front deposit" of financial assurance to cover all costs of potential reclamation. The state already requires this comprehensive financial assurance to be bankruptcy-proof, assuring taxpayers are protected. The financial assurance also must be reviewed every year and be continually in place so that no company can "walk away" from its responsibility.

Clearly, all requirements are in place for PolyMet and other mines that might follow. Any proposed legislation that attempts to place additional restrictions on non-ferrous mining is unnecessary and duplicative. It will do nothing to better the environment. It will only cause significant project delays and jeopardize investment and job opportunities in Minnesota.

Demand for base and precious metals is growing both domestically and globally. Mining development for this demand is growing as well, much of it in countries that have little regard for environmental safeguards.

This emerging industry will mine copper, nickel, platinum, palladium, cobalt, and gold. These are metals all of us use every single day of our lives. Our computers, our cell phones, catalytic converters to remove emissions from automobiles, alloys for our defense systems, stainless steel for medical devices, and wiring and plumbing for our homes all come from these metals.

Currently, the U.S. is dependent on foreign countries to supply a majority of our increasing consumption of these metals. We can start to move toward greater self-reliance.

We all talk about the need for a green economy. There are tons – yes, tons – of copper in the largest wind turbines. Hybrid cars also require several of these metals in amounts significantly greater than regular automobiles.

We have a great opportunity for Minnesota. We can help meet the growing demand for metals with Minnesota jobs, and we can do it with Minnesota's strict environmental standards. We can have jobs and a clean environment.

Let's provide these much-needed jobs for our Minnesota families without any additional, unnecessary cost and delay. Let's do it here, do it right and do it now.

FRANK ONGARO of Duluth is executive director of MiningMinnesota, an industrial trade organization that represents non-ferrous mining companies, suppliers and vendors, and other mining supporters.


Our view: State’s mining rules enough, but let conversation continue

Duluth News Tribune
March 10, 2010

Everyone wants the employment PolyMet is promising. Hundreds of jobs that pay well and hundreds of millions of dollars of economic impact hinge on the company's ability to launch mining operations for precious metals near Babbitt.

At the same time, no one wants environmental devastation or pollution, as some fear could be left by PolyMet or another precious-metals mine.

So state rules and laws are needed to assure environmental responsibility, and cash is needed up front to cover the costs of any cleanup later.



And in Minnesota, such assurances and standards already are in place and are among the most stringent in the nation. The state requires bankruptcy-proof financial assurances before mining begins in case money is needed for cleanup later. No financial assurance, no mining permit, according to state rules adopted in the early 1990s following years of study, including 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.

But the state's strict standards aren't enough for some. Legislation was introduced in St. Paul last year to heap on additional and unnecessarily duplicative requirements. Lawmakers wisely let the bill die without even a hearing.

Unfortunately, another bill has been introduced this year that could stall, and perhaps kill, PolyMet while also hampering the rest of the state's mining industry.

A Senate hearing is scheduled this evening. In advance of that, today's News Tribune Opinion Page offers two viewpoints on PolyMet and on precious metals mining. Read. Consider. Form your own opinions. Then join the community conversation by writing a letter to the editor. Submission guidelines are published on this page.

Hundreds of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars of economic impact are at stake. But so, too, may be our state's environmental integrity.

Melander, Olson: Minnesota’s mining standards are strict enough. Let’s get on with it

Pioneer Press
March 9, 2010

Everywhere you look, someone is stating the obvious. 'We need jobs!' More than 200,000 people are out of work in Minnesota alone.

President Obama says he wants jobs. Governor Pawlenty says he wants to see jobs in Minnesota. The mantra at the Legislature is "jobs, jobs, jobs." Creation of jobs is the only way to generate revenue and establish a base for our future fiscal stability.

It's our good fortune that we have a tremendous opportunity to create thousands of jobs in the next generation of mining: Minnesota's nonferrous industry.

The first project, PolyMet Mining, is ready to go, and the benefits are clear. The capital investment of $600 million in this precious-metal mine on the Iron Range will require 1.5 million hours of work by skilled trades workers over two years. When it's fully operational, 400 full-time jobs will command an annual payroll of nearly $40 million. Supplier and vendor spin-off jobs, according to the University of Minnesota Duluth, will create an additional 500 jobs in St. Louis County alone, adding another $242 million to our economy.

In total, tens of millions of dollars in tax revenue will be generated for cities, schools and the state each year. These benefits from mining are extremely important as Minnesota emerges from this recession.

The potential risks from this operation also are being addressed. Minnesota has a strict and demanding environmental review and permitting process, albeit too lengthy and costly.

In addition, the state has requirements specific to nonferrous mining. Before a company can receive a permit to mine, Minnesota demands an "up-front deposit" of financial assurance to cover all costs of any potential reclamation. The assurance must be bankruptcy proof so taxpayers are protected, and it must remain in place so no company can "walk away" from its responsibility. Existing law requires an annual detailed review of all costs of potential environmental exposure and adjusts the financial requirements accordingly.

This comprehensive environmental review and permitting ensures that all companies will meet Minnesota's strict environmental standards, and that our air quality, water quality and taxpayers are protected. If the conditions are not met, permits are rejected.

Any proposed legislation that attempts to place additional restrictions on nonferrous mining is unnecessary and duplicative. Additional mandates will do nothing to better the environment. They will only cause project delays and possibly loss of investment and job opportunities for our state.

Witness the bill before the Legislature that would require companies to provide additional financial assurances on nonferrous mines. The legislation would remove the ability of mines to use bonds and securities. Present methods of financial guarantees, including irrevocable letters of credit and corporate guarantees, would be prohibited.

What remains? New rule-making by state agencies – which is typically a long and cumbersome process – or additional restrictions on the state's existing authority to determine the most appropriate financial coverage for a project. Either avenue would prompt companies to give serious pause about whether to invest in Minnesota jobs.

Demand for base and precious metals is growing both domestically and globally. Mining development for this demand is growing as well, much of it in countries that have little regard for environmental safeguards.

This emerging industry will mine copper, nickel, platinum, palladium, cobalt and gold. All of us use these metals every single day of our lives. Our computers, cell phones, catalytic converters to remove emissions from automobiles, alloys for our defense systems, stainless steel for medical devices, and wiring and plumbing for our homes all come from these metals.

At present, the United States looks to foreign countries to supply a majority of our increasing consumption of these metals. We can start to change that dependency.

And let's not forget about all the talk about the need for a green economy. There are tons, yes tons, of copper in the largest wind turbines. Hybrid cars also require several of these metals in amounts significantly greater than regular automobiles.

We have a great opportunity for Minnesota. We can help meet the growing demand for metals with Minnesota jobs, and do it with Minnesota's strict environmental standards. This is truly economic stimulus without costing the taxpayers a dime.

Let's provide these much needed jobs for our Minnesota families without any additional unnecessary cost and delay. Let's do it here, do it right, and do it now.

Harry Melander is president of the Minnesota Building & Construction Trades Council. David Olson is president of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce.

Guest column: Polymet Mine would bring jobs

Brainerd Dispatch
March 5, 2010

One of the most controversial Minnesota projects in recent years is the proposed Polymet Mine on the Iron Range. The project calls for surface mining and mineral processing of approximately 228 million tons of copper-nickel-Platinum Group Element ore over approximately a 20-year mine life. The project would be the first large-scale non-ferrous metallic mineral mine in the state of Minnesota. PolyMet expects to mine, on average, 91,200 tons per day of material, which would include about 32,000 tpd of ore and 3,900 tpd of overburden and 55,300 tpd of waste rock.

Annually, this would result in the removal of about 19.7 million tons of waste rock and 1.4 million tons of overburden, although most overburden would be stripped during the construction period at the beginning of the Project. Operating at these rates, annual metal production would total about 38,821 tons of copper, 9,037 tons of nickel, 400 tons of cobalt, 22,184 ounces of platinum, 87,129 ounces of palladium, and 13,824 ounces of gold.

Environmentalists are lined up in opposition to Polymet, viewing the Project as a serious threat to water quality in the entire region including the Boundary Waters. Project advocates include Congressman Oberstar, Sen. Klobuchar, Gov. Pawlenty and others who are mindful of thousands of new quality jobs on the depressed Iron Range.

There is a recent 714-page Environmental Impact Statement for the Polymet Project from the Minnesota DNR and the Corps of Engineers. It is clear from the statement that all of the effluent from the project ends up in the drainage areas of the Partridge and Embarrass Rivers. Those rivers flow south to the St Louis River and Lake Superior, not north to the Boundary Waters.

The statement has both positive and negative comments about the project, but in general it suggests that if all of Polymet's commitments are met, there is no serious impact on the environment. The following quote from page 244 of the statement sums up comments about the three rivers involved:

"Even with these higher loadings and assuming no natural attenuation, the model results indicate that water quality standards for the Partridge River would be maintained for the eight constituents studied (i.e., antimony, arsenic, fluoride, cobalt, copper, nickel, vanadium, and sulfate) under all flow conditions and mine years modeled. Therefore, even using relatively conservative assumptions, the Proposed Action is not predicted to result in any exceedances of surface water quality standards for the Partridge River at the modeled locations."

There are valid arguments against the Polymet Project. Perhaps the most negative is the financial status of Polymet, a relatively small corporation for whom this is the major activity. Polymet will have to to meet the substantial commitments of the project which are described in the EIS. There is also the final closure and remediation which is estimated to cost $50 million, and then the long (more than 1,000 years per the Environmental Impact Statement) followup of drainage from left over tailings and newly created storage ponds.

Rolf Westgard


ROLF WESTGARD is a resident of Deerwood, a professional member of the Geological Society of America and a member of the Brainerd Dispatch advisory board.