A ban on copper mining here will increase pollution elsewhere

January 5, 2011

As long as there is a strong demand for copper, whatever copper we do not mine and process in Minnesota will be mined and processed somewhere else. If we don't produce copper domestically, then our nation will import copper.

If the copper we import were mined and processed in Camelot where the knights of the round table had invented a way to do it without polluting at all, then importing would be the lower pollution option. I don't believe that Camelot exists and I don't believe zero polluting copper mines exist. I believe that we import copper from mines and processing plants that are real. Some real copper mines pollute quite a bit. Let me tell you about four real places where copper is mined and processed.

The first is Norilsk, Russia. The Blacksmith Institute publishes an annual list of the ten most polluted places in the world. Norilsk made the list in 2007. I found a description of the place on a website at www.worstpolluted.org. Here is what they had to say about Norilsk. "The city has been accused of being one of the most polluted places in Russia, where the snow is black, the air tastes of sulfur and the life expectancy for factory workers is 10 years below the Russian average. A 1999 study found elevated copper and nickel concentrations in soils in as much as a 60 km radius of the city."

The next is La Oroya, Peru. This city made the same list as Norilsk. Here is a quote from the website cited previously. "Since 1922, adults and children in La Oroya, Peru – a mining town in the Peruvian Andes and the site of a poly-metallic smelter – have been exposed to the toxic emissions and wastes from the plant."

The culprit in Norilsk is a copper nickel smelter run by the Norilsk Nickel Company. The culprit in La Oroya is a smelter at the Doe Run Mine, which my latest information says is owned by a New York billionaire. Smelters can produce quite serious air pollution. The proposed Polymet mine between Babbitt and Hoyt Lakes will utilize an autoclave instead of a smelter. The Polymet facility will not be a source of air pollution.

The next place is the Fujian province in China. On July 3rd of 2010 toxic waste water from a mine in that province spilled into the Ting river. Tons of fish were killed. The waste water came from the sludge pond of a copper mining facility. If you want to read about the toxic spill and see a picture go to www.physorg.com/news198827712.html.

The last operation is in the remote Papua province of Indonesia. It is home to the Freeport Mine. The mine has a long history of pollution-related violations. It is one of the largest copper mines in the world yet  it operates under a shroud of secrecy.

If copper-bearing ore is removed from the ground and stock piled, then any rain water that comes in contact with the stock pile and drains away will be polluted. If it is allowed to drain into a river, lake or stream those bodies of water will be polluted. Also the tailings from the processed ore are often conveyed by water which is, of course, also polluted. In Indonesia there are regulations against allowing untreated polluted water to flow into lakes, rivers or streams, but they are not enforced at this particular mine.

The mining company has a lot of money and political influence and the government officials appear to be looking the other way. The mining company has stock piled large quantities of low grade ore so it can get to the higher grade, more profitable ore. The low grade ore stock piles are a source of acid rock drainage which is polluting a nearby river. Also the dike that contains the tailings from the mine is poorly designed and not up to the standards that government regulations call for.

You can read about this mine at http://investmentwatch.wordpress.com/2007/09/07/walhi-report-on-freeport-rio-tinto/.

All water that drains from copper-bearing ore must be contained and process water must not be allowed to enter nearby lakes, rivers or streams. It is critical to construct dikes to high standards and to dispose of tailings in well-constructed cells that prevent leaching in the near term and forever. That is part of the plan at the Polymet facility.

If we prohibit copper mining in Minnesota and then import copper from mines such as the ones described above, we will increase pollution in the world. It is far better to mine copper domestically where the EPA and DNR can regulate it than to import copper mined and processed in an environmentally destructive manner.

Brian Birk
Tower, Minn.