⇦ BACK

Modern Mining Is No Threat to Minnesota

Modern Mining Is No Threat to Minnesota

Star Tribune (Daily)

Frank Ongaro

Aug. 21, 2015

Earlier this month, a crew working to clean up the long-closed Gold King mine in Colorado unintentionally breached an earthen dam, releasing an estimated 3 million gallons of mine wastewater into Colorado’s Animas River and prompting the governors of Colorado, New Mexico and Utah, as well as the Navajo Nation, to declare states of emergency.

Mining opponents point to the tragedy as an example of everything that’s wrong with mining and, in Minnesota, why proposed copper-nickel mining shouldn’t happen here.

A look at the history of mining should give us reassurance that mining, and particularly copper-nickel mining, is right for Minnesota.

Gold King is an underground mine that operated from the 1890s to the 1920s, long before the creation of today’s environmental regulatory structure. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency was created in 1970, the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972 and the Mine Safety and Health Administration created in 1977. Our state-level regulatory body, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, was not created until 1967.

Mines that are built in the U.S. and Minnesota today must pass rigorous environmental review and adhere to strict state and federal regulations that were not in place during the lifetime of the Gold King mine.

“The great news is that modern mining does not allow the release of these waters,” said Elizabeth Holley, assistant professor of mining engineering at the Colorado School of Mines. “The bad news is we owe [Colorado] statehood to mining prior to any environmental regulations.”

The contrast between historic and modern mining is stark, in terms of both environmental and safety performance. Mines built and operated throughout the country before the advent of modern mining regulations are burdened with heavy environmental liabilities. Some have become superfund sites or are candidates for the listing, as was the Gold King.

However, since 1990, there have been more than 1,000 hard-rock mines planned, sited and operated on U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management lands, and none has become a superfund site.

Technology such as the reverse osmosis water treatment plant that the proposed PolyMet project near Hoyt Lakes would employ to meet the state’s strict sulfate standards for wild rice could not be dreamed of a century ago. Neither could air-quality monitoring systems that would be in use that are so sensitive that the mercury in a technician’s dental fillings can be detected if he exhales near the equipment.

To protect our safety and the environment, regulations applicable to the mining industry are continuously updated and improved. This enables both the mining of metals that are so vital to our modern lifestyle and the protection of our natural resources.

And, in Minnesota, it allows us to put people to work in a region that is hard-hit with taconite mining layoffs and where mining is a way of life. The proposed PolyMet mine near Hoyt Lakes would create 1,000 direct and spinoff jobs, along with an annual economic benefit to the region of $500 million — 25 times the amount recently requested by Gov. Mark Dayton for Lake Mille Lacs walleye relief.

The Gold King tragedy should not be viewed as a harbinger of the future of modern copper-nickel mining. Rather, it’s an excellent reminder of how far we’ve come.

Go Beyond Mine Visits for PolyMet

Our View: Go Beyond Mine Visits for PolyMet

Duluth News Tribune (Daily)

Editorial Board

Aug. 12, 2015

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton announced this month he’ll visit two mining sites suggested to him by supporters of the proposed PolyMet mine as well as two mining sites recommended by PolyMet opponents.

Give the governor credit for doing his homework and due diligence as a lengthy environmental review wraps up and as the permitting process inches closer for PolyMet’s proposed copper-nickel mining operation near Babbitt and Hoyt Lakes.

Give him credit, too, for recognizing that whether PolyMet comes to fruition “will be the most momentous, difficult and consequential decision I’ll make as governor.”

But can apples-to-apples comparisons be made? The geography and geology at the PolyMet site are unique. There’s no other spot like it on Earth, the company and proponents of the project have said. Can visiting other mines provide insights? Can they guarantee or even suggest PolyMet’s success or failure?

“Every operation, every deposit, every one’s mineralogy, every one’s geography, it is all different. So I’m not going to say one or two mines are the definitive compare-contrast opportunity,” Frank Ongaro, executive director of Minnesota Mining, the state’s copper mining trade group, told the News Tribune Opinion page.

Which doesn’t mean visiting other mining sites and gathering information isn’t valuable. Such research can be encouraged — as long as the uniqueness of the different places and the limited insights to be gained are kept in mind. And as long as the visits are only part of the factors weighed during decision-making.

“Our feeling from the industry is, ‘By all means, Governor, go, learn as much as possible and do it as quickly as possible. Your agencies and staffers have been doing this for years, visiting other mines and sites, because you can learn something,’ ” Ongaro said. “You might not see the same geography, the same geology, the same exact type of processing, but what you can see is modern mining, mitigation, processing, tailings, (and) wastewater treatment, which is obviously very important.

“It’s very worthwhile,” Ongaro said of the governor’s planned trips. “He’ll learn a lot and he’ll see that the PolyMet project, if he also takes the time to learn about the specifics of their project, will stack up very solidly. As he learns all this and sees all this — the modern mining and successful mitigation and effective wastewater treatment —  the governor will be able to sleep well at night because he doesn’t have to wrestle with this, because there’s a system in place, and all he has to do is let that process work.”

The governor doesn’t directly sign off on PolyMet, the environmental review of its plans or even whether permits to mine are granted. The federal Environmental Protection Agency and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources are among those responsible for that.

However, as Gov. Dayton’s office is quick to point out, DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr works for the governor. Any notion that the governor wouldn’t interject himself into something so potentially transformative to the state would be naive. Of course the governor will be involved. Minnesotans had to expect it.

“Ultimately, the buck stops with him,” Dayton spokesman Matt Swenson told the Opinion page.

The governor’s announcement that he’ll tour four mine sites some time after Labor Day came less than a week after environmental groups implored him to get more involved. While backers of the project point to its promise of hundreds of permanent jobs and millions of hours of construction work in an area currently suffering through hundreds of mining layoffs, environmentalists claim copper-nickel mining will pollute water and be an environmental disaster.

“It’s up to Gov. Dayton to do what’s needed to protect Minnesota’s clean water,” Aaron Klemz of the Minneapolis-based Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness said, according to a June 29 Minnesota Public Radio report.

Concerns deserve to be addressed — and have been addressed and still are being addressed via an exhaustive environmental-review process that now has spanned more than 10 years. Minnesota’s tough standards are helping to assure safe operations.

“Right now it’s not up to (Gov. Dayton). It’s not up to me. It’s not up to the environmentalists,” Ongaro said. “Right now, it’s up to PolyMet to demonstrate to the regulators that they meet our Minnesota standards and our system. And if they do, guess what, the project moves forward. Simple.”

As long as they don’t cost state taxpayers an exorbitant amount in travel expenses, the governor’s planned fact-finding trips can be welcomed. The information he’ll gather can prove valuable. As long as he and everyone else keeps in mind that experiences elsewhere don’t necessarily guarantee success or failure here.

State Lakes Get a Boost from PolyMet

State Lakes Get a Boost from PolyMet

Mesabi Daily News (Daily)

Angie Riebe

July 21, 2015

PolyMet Mining and Ducks Unlimited have formed a partnership to help with a program aimed at restoring the health of some of Minnesota’s lakes, including some northern waterways with wild rice.

The Ducks Unlimited Living Lakes Initiative restores, enhances and protects shallow lakes, large wetlands and watersheds for waterfowl, wildlife and humans, according to the organization.

PolyMet is scheduled to open a copper/nickel/precious metals mine in 2016. It will be the first copper/nickel mine in Minnesota.

Environmental critics say it will pollute the groundwater, but company officials contend science says otherwise. The project’s preliminary Environmental Impact Statement is complete and a February 2016 date is anticipated on the federal adequacy of the final EIS.

The project, which has received about 10 years of environmental review, will create 360 permanent jobs, hundreds more in spin-off positions and 2 million hours of construction.

An integral part of the initiative is management and protection of the state’s wild rice resources.

“Ducks Unlimited and PolyMet share a commitment to wild rice protection and conservation,” said Brian Ross, DU Minnesota state chairman. “PolyMet joins other like-minded companies that have partnered with DU on the Living Lakes Initiative, which does so much to preserve precious habitat for waterfowl and wildlife as well as Minnesota’s rich cultural heritage of hunting and other outdoor activities.”

The agreement is for three years, with hopes for a long-term relationship. PolyMet will provide DU funding for the initiative, which will help DU enhance wild rice in more than 100 shallow lakes and wetlands in northern Minnesota each year.

PolyMet officials praised the partnership.

“PolyMet is proud to be associated with Ducks Unlimited, with its outstanding track record of conservation leadership, habitat restoration and protection, and industry, government and public collaboration,” said Jon Cherry, PolyMet president and CEO. Through the Living Lakes Initiative, Ducks Unlimited manages 100 wild rice lakes annually affecting more than 27,000 acres in Minnesota.

The initiative is designed to enhance, restore, and protect “stepping stones” of managed shallow lakes and wetlands from central Iowa through northern Minnesota, providing high quality aquatic food and habitat resources for migrating and breeding waterfowl.

The primary goal of the Living Lakes Initiative in Minnesota is to restore the health and functionality of degraded shallow lakes and wetlands from northern forest to southern prairie.

While DU’s focus is on waterfowl, these landscapes do more than provide habitat. Enhanced shallow lakes serve as flood storage and large water filtration systems. Water leaving these prairie wetland systems is of a much higher quality due to a reduction in suspended phosphorus.

Mineral and Mining Law in Northeastern Minnesota

Mineral and Mining Law in Northeastern Minnesota – A Primer on State Mineral Policy, Mineral Rights and Leasing

BusinessNorth (Monthly)

Matthew Hanka

July 15, 2015

The combination of ferrous and non-ferrous mineral and mining resources have long made Northeastern Minnesota a mining powerhouse. Minnesota has been a leading producer of iron ore and taconite for decades. Large quantities of Minnesota’s high grade ferrous mineral resources were mined over time, but substantial quantities of lower grade iron ore remains. New technologies allow iron to be recovered from the waste of past mining, called tailings. Accordingly, iron ore will remain important for Minnesota’s economy for decades to come.

With that said, there is increased interest in Northeastern Minnesota’s non-ferrous mineral resources, such as copper, nickel, platinum, palladium, gold and other valuable minerals sometimes called “strategic” metals.  Strategic metals are used for wiring, battery technologies and components for wind and solar energy production.

State mining policy provides balance

The Minnesota legislature determined that it is the “policy of the state to provide for the diversification of the state’s mineral economy through long-term support of mineral exploration, evaluation, environmental research, development, production, and commercialization.” See Minn. Stat. § 93.001.  

State lawmakers specifically determined that strategic metals are important by legislating that “[t]he business of mining, producing, or beneficiating nonferrous metallic minerals is declared to be in the public interest and necessary to the public welfare…”  See Minn. Stat. § 93.43(a).  Minnesota Rules, Chapter 6132 states that the purpose and policy with regard to strategic metals is to “control possible adverse environmental effects … to preserve natural resources … while promoting orderly development of … mining” so that such mining is “conducted in a manner that will reduce impacts to the extent practicable, mitigate unavoidable impacts and ensure that the mining area is left in a condition that protects natural resources.” 

As the Chapter 6132 language outlines, the state’s policies balance the economic benefits of mining with protection of vital natural resources.  For example, an environmental impact statement (EIS) is required for all new mining operations in Minnesota.  An EIS is an analytical analysis that describes a proposed action in detail, analyzes its significant environmental impacts, discusses appropriate alternatives to the action and possible impacts, and explores the methods by which potential adverse environmental impacts of an action could be mitigated.  See Minn. Stat. § 116D.04.  Environmental review also allows an opportunity for public input related to a proposed project.

Mineral rights

A landowner’s ownership of surface rights does not necessarily mean that the landowner owns the mineral rights.  “Severance” is the separation of the ownership of minerals from the ownership of surface rights.  Severance can occur through a land transfer and deed language.  Severance occurs through a conveyance of only minerals, or by a conveyance of surface rights with a reservation of mineral rights.  After severance, the surface rights and minerals are held by separate title.  The mineral rights become a type of real property that may be sold, transferred or inherited independent of a surface estate.

Unless excluded in the severing deed language, the holder of a mineral estate maintains a right to use the surface lands as may be reasonably needed to reach and remove any of the reserved minerals.  This gives a holder of a mineral estate a right to enter the land, explore for minerals that may exist on the land and ultimately mine any minerals that are discovered. However, so called “entry rights” are tempered by legal doctrine that give the holder of the surface estate a right to compensation for damage that may occur through mining and exploration.  A lease between the surface owner and the mineral owner will typically deal with the specifics of such compensation.

Mineral rights leasing

The majority of Minnesota mineral rights are privately held, either by individuals or businesses.  The federal government also holds a significant amount of mineral rights.  But, the state is the largest single owner of mineral rights in Minnesota.

The DNR Division of Lands and Minerals manages the state’s mineral rights.  The DNR holds mineral rights for public and private parcels.  The legislature authorizes the DNR to “execute leases to prospect for iron ore and other ores upon lands belonging to the state or in which the state has an interest and for the mining of the ores.”  See Minn. Stat. § 93.14.  The legislature has authorized leasing of nonferrous metallic minerals as well.  See Minn. Stat. § 93.25.

Annual auctions are conducted by the DNR for state-owned mineral right leases.  The winning bidders pay the state an annual fee during mineral exploration.  As part of the lease agreement, if actual mining occurs, the mining company pays a per-ton royalty to the state.  Minimum royalty rates are established by statute.  See Minn. Stat. § 93.20, subd. 3.  State royalty rates are market rates, often as high, or higher, than royalty rates negotiated in private mineral leases.

State royalties are used to benefit state education funds.  The Permanent School Trust Fund was established to ensure a long-term source of funds for public education in the state.  The fund consists of the accumulated revenues generated from the land.  And, according to the DNR, minerals have generated 80 percent of the historical total revenue for the Permanent School Trust Fund.

What about sand and gravel?

Is sand and gravel a “mineral”?  Historically, the issue of sand and gravel has come up in the context of road construction and building materials.  However, the question has surfaced more in recent years because of the use of silica sand in hydraulic fracturing for extraction of oil and gas.

The short answer to whether sand and gravel are minerals is that it largely depends upon the language of the operative grant of rights.  If the only language in the operative document is that “mineral rights” are reserved or conveyed, then the Minnesota Supreme Court has held that whether sand, gravel, limestone or shale constitute “minerals” depends upon the parties’ intentions and the surrounding circumstances of the grant.  See Vang v. Mount, 220 N.W.2d 498 (Minn. 1974).  In short, if a dispute arises about the extent of the rights, then getting an answer could mean litigation.  Facts that may be relevant to a court’s determination may be the value of the substance, the intent of the parties, the effect that extraction of the substance might have on the surface and the surrounding circumstances of local custom or usage.

The lesson here is that in Minnesota, if parties intend to convey or reserve the right to extract sand or gravel, then they should not rely upon a conveyance or reservation that simply states that “minerals and mineral rights” are conveyed or reserved.  The conveyance or reservation should specifically state that there is an intent to convey or reserve sand or gravel extraction rights.

Conclusion

Minnesota’s legislative policies and regulations, along with continued exploration and new mining technologies, mean that mining will continue to expand in an efficient and environmentally responsible way.  Iron ore remains one of the foundations of Minnesota mining.  However, valuable strategic mineral mining is poised to become a significant contributor to the economy while feeding the global need presented by the expansion of green technologies.

PolyMet Review Timetable Detailed

PolyMet Review Timetable Detailed

Pioneer Press (Daily)

John Myers

July 14, 2015

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources on Monday released a slightly more detailed timetable for the ongoing environmental review and potential permitting process for the proposed PolyMet copper-nickel mine near here.

The agency, in a schedule posted on its website, says the final environmental impact statement will be published in early November, followed by a 30-day period in which the public can comment.

The DNR, which finished its preliminary environmental review in June, had said it will have a final decision on the adequacy of the review by the end of 2015. DNR officials now say that adequacy decision won’t come until February 2016.

Offering less detail, the DNR simply lists “2016” for federal agencies — namely the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Forest Service — to issue a record of decision on whether their environmental review process has been adequate for the PolyMet project.

PolyMet officials said this week they will begin to apply for state and federal permits in August, even as the environmental review winds down. Once the environmental review efforts have been deemed adequate by the agencies, and details of the permits worked out, permits could be issued for PolyMet to start work, possibly in 2016.

“The adequacy decision does not authorize or approve the project. The project would still need to receive local, state and federal approvals and permits in order to proceed,” the new DNR posting notes.

Lawsuits notwithstanding, once permits are issued, PolyMet plans to start digging the mine and building its transportation and processing systems as quickly as possible. But the company first needs to raise millions of dollars from investors and/ or lenders to pay for the buildout.

PolyMet is proposing Minnesota’s first copper-nickel mine, a $600 million open-pit mine near Babbitt with a processing center at the former LTV Steel site north of Hoyt Lakes. The project is expected to create about 350 jobs for more than 20 years, plus extensive spinoff business. Copper mining skeptics continue to have grave concerns about long-term water treatment at the site, especially acidic mine runoff and mine waste from high-sulfur rock, noting that treatment could be required for decades after the mine closes.

Supporters say any runoff can be effectively treated without environmental damage, and they say the project could help diversify the regional economy that’s been hard-hit this year by the collapse of global iron ore prices, the only metal mined in the state so far.

City Votes to Support PolyMet