Mining’s resiliency

Mesabi Daily News
April 14, 2010

Mining just keeps on providing jobs and paychecks on the Iron Range long after the mineral was supposed to be exhausted.

Remember 2002? That was the previous name of a fund in the 1980s at the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board based on the projected year when mining resources would have been depleted.

The agency was created with a vision that no other mining area has realized. Establish a production tax paid by mining companies in lieu of property taxes, with the funds staying in the region to generate economic development when the nonrenewable mineral is gone.

The goal of economic diversity in a mining region is clear but has not been that easily attainable. Such economic diversity will always be a work in progress for the agency – work that should be done daily with an urgency that matches the reason for the IRRRB's existence. It's unfortunate that's not always the case.

Yes, we are better economically diversified than in the mid-1980s when the bottom fell out of the iron and steel industries. But while we have call centers, health care initiatives, a few more light manufacturing businesses and a much more aggressive and successful tourism industry, we also fall far short of generating the businesses and jobs needed to backfill the terrible exodus of families from the area more than two decades ago. The continuing annual declining K-12 enrollment numbers points out just how important is an aggressive agenda of jobs for the region.

Meanwhile, and quite fortunately, the mining industry on the region continues to be the backbone of the Range's economy.

Taconite mining remains strong, with last year's tough downturn part of a global economic meltdown. However, once again, the demand for taconite pellets is high and mines are running at good productivity.

Mesabi Nugget, producing a high-grade of iron ore nuggets, is now up and running with about 100 jobs created.

On the west end of the Range, a taconite mine and steelmaking operation is moving ahead.

And on the east end of the Range, we are poised for a new era of nonferrous mining that will produce copper, nickel and precious metals the state, nation and world needs to move forward with products that are essential to everyday life and also to help the global environment. So let's get on with it. It's time for bureaucrats and some environmentalists to get out of the way

Then there's Magnetation, which is producing hematite from iron ore tailings and providing even more mining jobs out of what has been discarded waste products.

Naysayers have often loudly proclaimed mining dead. Even the experts were wrong when they pinpointed 2002 as the year when the mining industry on the Range would go silent.

To paraphrase Mark Twain: The report of mining's death was an exaggeration.


Understanding PolyMet’s Proposed Copper Mine

Northern Wilds
April-May 2010

Recently, I visited the proposed PolyMet copper mine and processing facility at Hoyt Lakes.  This news-making project may launch a new era of mining on Minnesota's Iron Range – provided the project is approved through a rigorous environmental review and permitting process.

Hosting my visit were PolyMet's LaTisha Gietzen, an engineer and fourth generation Iron Ranger, and Brad Moore, a senior advisor of public affairs for Barr Engineering. Moore is a former commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and assistant commissioner of the DNR.  Full disclosure here, I know Moore personally and fished and hunted with him.

PolyMer proposes to mine and extract copper, nickel, cobalt and precious metals using a former taconite processing plant on the outskirts of Hoyt Lakes.  If you were looking to open a new mine, in some ways you could not pick a better place.  Although the company's two open pits would be new, existing mine pits are nearby.  Transportation infrastructure, is in place to transport ore from the mine to the processing plant.  The facility is a brownfield site mining activity has occurred since the 1950s.  It includes a roughly four-square mile tailings basin where waste material from processing is permanently stored and the water used in the process is collected and re-used.

PolyMet will mine chunks of ore from the pit and transport them to the plant to be crushed and ground into a find powder.  The powder will be made into a slurry and put in large tanks where the metal-bearing sulfide minerals are separated from find sand tailings.  The tailings will be piped from the basin and the sulfide minerals will be processed into various products. PolyMet can accomplish the crushing and grinding operations using about one-third the capacity of the existing plant. Further processing requires new facilities to be built on site.

The sulfide minerals will be heated in an autoclave, triggering a chemical reaction that will separate in solution copper for further processing, nickel and cobalt hydroxide that will be processed off-site, small amounts of precious metals (platinum, palladium and gold) also processed off site, and a byproduct, gypsum, that may be sold as a secondary product. Further on-site processing will produce 99 percent pure copper plates.  Total annual output will be 36,000 tons of copper, 7,700 tons of nickel, 360 tons of cobalt and 7,200 pounds of precious metals.

The downside is the mining and processing will produce waste rock and tailings containing sulfur, because rocks containing copper also contain sulfur.  When exposed to air and water, some of the mining wastes could create sulfuric acid – which could become acid mine drainage. Much of the environmental debate surrounding the project is whether PolyMet's plans will contain the waste and whether the company has adequate bankruptcy-proof financial assurance to cover the cost of clean up if acid main drainage occurs.  PolyMet is in the Partridge River watershed, a headwater tributary of the St. Louis River, which enters Lake Superior at Duluth.

PolyMet plans to contain waste materials and have no acid drainage. About 10 percent of the waste rock at the mine contains higher levels of sulfur.  This rock will be stored on a liner until it is returned to one of the pits and flooded with water to stop any acid generation, a process called subaquaeous storage.  Tailings from processing with low sulfur levels that are not acid-generating will be stored in the tailings basin, which is designed for containment.  The company must meet the state's financial assurance requirements.

Air emissions from the plant are projected to be a small fraction of those produced in taconite processing and PolyMet must meet all state and federal air quality standards. No wastewater discharges from the mine or the plant are proposed during operations, and any discharge from the proposed mine either during operations or after closure will have to meet the state wild rice water quality standard.  Current research indicates that PolyMet mine operations will not increase methylation of mercury in the St. Louis River watershed.  While the mine site is located on 6,700 acres Superior National Forest property, PolyMet is purchasing lands for exchange.  In order to meet the federal government's obligations to the tribes, the exchange lands will be located within the 1854 treaty area so tribal hunting, fishing and gathering rights are maintained.

While some critics say the PolyMet project is a threat to the Boundary Waters, the project site is about 20 miles southwest of the wilderness boundary and in a watershed flowing in the opposite direction.  However, the project is about 6 miles from Hoyt Lakes and upstream from Colby Lake, the community's water supply.  Gietzen says onsite containment will prevent acid drainage from entering the ground water and not have an effect on the town's drinking water or water wells in the vicinity.

PolyMet has worked on the project's planning and engineering for five years. Because this is a new mining process – and the first copper mine in Minnesota – the plans and projections are based on extensive testing and computer modeling which becomes a basis for many decisions made during the environmental review.

PolyMet's draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) went through the public commend period, drawing comments from average citizens to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The regulating agencies now must respond to all comments and make changes or provide scientific justification for decisions.  When the environmental review is complete – contested aspects of the company's plans may need to be settled in court – PolyMet can then receive its necessary permits.

The EIS provides needed information for the permitting process.  Over a dozen federal and state permits are required before mining begins, including a Section 404 federal wetlands permit, a state Permit to Mine, a stat Air Emissions Permit and other permits dealing with water protection, waste disposal and pollution control.  Only after the permits are acquired can the project move forward.

Beneath northern Minnesota lies a rock formation called the Duluth Complex, which contains 4.5 billion tons of ore and is considered the world's second largest source of contained copper and platinum group metals.  Exploration of the Duluth Complex is ongoing and other mining proposals are in the works.

Our society requires copper, nickel, and precious metals to make everything from cell phones and laptop computers to "green" technology such as wind turbines and hybrid cars.  The big question is: Should we mine copper in Minnesota, where environmental safeguards are in place, or get it from a less-developed corner of the globe which lacks rules to protect the environment and people?

Bois Forte on PolyMet: Do right thing right way

Mesabi Daily News
April 3, 2010

The ongoing debate about the proposed PolyMet Mining project has produced some very specific, well-researched claims and counterclaims.

Unfortunately, the contention that all Tribal governments oppose the project is not one of them. "Indians" cannot and should not be lumped together as one homogenous group. While it is true that most northern Minnesota Indians share a common heritage and belong to the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, each of the bands is a separate entity with its own membership, its own government, and its own views on a wide range of issues.

We also have membership in different organizations. For instance, my band – the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa – does not belong to The Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, a group that has been critical of PolyMet.

Because of our proximity to the proposed PolyMet site, Bois Forte would be among those most affected by new mining operations. That is why we have been very proactive in meeting with PolyMet officials and exploring the project's potential environmental impact with both PolyMet and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Bois Forte's two years of meetings with PolyMet have covered many facets of the project. Our Tribal Council and PolyMet leaders have sat down together to discuss the project and tour our Heritage Center and Cultural Museum for a better understanding of our history in the area.

Our environmental services staff has discussed the possible impact on the area's air and water quality. Our historic preservation expert has reviewed the central role that careful environmental stewardship has always played in our culture. Our community development and planning staff have investigated the projected economic benefits and the opportunity to use biofuel – a renewable, local natural resource – to help power PolyMet's operations. And our natural resources staff has been involved on various fronts.

Like our neighbors in northern Minnesota, we keenly understand the importance of mining jobs, the possibilities of new technologies, and the need to bolster our local economy. And like our friends who feel a strong sense of obligation to nurture natural resources, we are committed to protecting the land, the waters, and the animals that share this home with us.

We understand the delicate balance between creating vital jobs and promoting economic development and protecting our precious natural resources.

There are no quick, easy answers to the important questions raised by the proposed PolyMet project. That is why Bois Forte is committed to doing a thorough scientific analysis and then deciding if we support or oppose the operation.

So please don't believe it if you hear that "all Indians or Tribal governments" are for or against PolyMet. Bois Forte is for doing the right thing, the right way.

Kevin Leecy of Lake Vermilion is the chairman of the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa. He also serves as president of the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, the state's official liaison with Minnesota's 11 tribes

Parting thoughts and shots

Budgeteer News
April 2, 2010

When I served in the Minnesota Legislature and later lived in Ely for four years, I was opposed to copper-nickel mining up there. But additional environmental protections have now altered my opinion: Today I support PolyMet's proposal to mine those and other ores at its site in northeastern Minnesota. Among the benefits of the proposed mine: hundreds of new permanent jobs.

Ralph Doty