A long, careful process toward copper-nickel mine: Pioneer Press editorial
Pioneer Press POSTED: 11/07/2015 12:01:00 AM CST | UPDATED: ABOUT 19 HOURS AGO
Minnesotans should appreciate the process that is purposefully working its way to a conclusion as the state decides whether to allow copper and nickel mining on the Iron Range.
After 10 years, it reached a landmark Friday when the state’s Department of Natural Resources issued the final environmental impact statement on the proposed PolyMet mine near Hoyt Lakes in northeastern Minnesota. If other steps proceed and the department approves the 3,000-page document early next year, the company then could begin applying for the nearly two dozen permits it will need.
Since the beginning, the debate weighed the potential for new private-sector jobs and tax revenue against the threat of environmental damage. With the process, there is a path toward both: the work that people in the region know and want and the safeguards needed to protect a treasured landscape.
Key for the region — and a driver of political support for the project from many of its elected officials — is that ready-and-waiting workforce to fill 350 full-time, family-supporting jobs. The region’s people, with their deep roots and long mining history, “are a huge asset for us,” PolyMet President and CEO Jon Cherry told the editorial board last month.
The mine would yield copper, nickel, cobalt and other precious metals from deposits in the so-called Duluth Complex that are associated with the 1.1 billion-year-old Mid-Continent Rift.
While demand for those metals is increasing, PolyMet says, very few mines in the nation produce them.
The metals are essential for our modern conveniences, and the ease, comfort and economic benefits that go with them. When we embrace wind power, we should do so with the realization that an industrial-size wind-energy turbine requires, as Cherry noted, about 10,000 pounds of copper. Plumbing, electricity, hybrid cars, aircraft engines and the ubiquitous cell phone battery all rely on metals that PolyMet would mine.
The arguments for such mining in Minnesota include the benefits that come with production here — under stringent and exacting environmental requirements — rather than elsewhere in the world, without those strict standards.
Cherry expresses confidence in the process and its rigors. In the end, “if you’ve fulfilled the law, it should move forward,” he told us.
He makes the point that environmental safeguards are “backstopped” by financial assurances the state will hold. Minnesota law requires non-ferrous mining companies to have bankruptcy-proof financial resources in place to cover possible environmental cleanup costs before the state will issue a permit to operate.
Gov. Mark Dayton has said he wants a review of company finances to help provide assurances about covering cleanup costs, lest taxpayers be stuck with the bill.
Dayton also has said the matter represents the “most difficult and consequential decision I’ll make as governor.” He last month toured two facilities as part of his due-diligence effort: the Gilt Edge Mine in South Dakota, a federal Superfund cleanup site that has cost taxpayers more than $100 million, so far; and the Eagle Mine in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula that opened last year.
Cherry, who brings a background in environmental engineering to his work, was responsible for permitting and initial development at the Eagle Mine. Dayton returned from his visit there impressed with community outreach, environmental protections and technological operations, according to a Pioneer Press report.
The Eagle Mine’s nickel and copper, like the ore deposit at the PolyMet site, are bound up in sulfide minerals that can leach sulfuric acid when exposed to air and water, an Associated Press report explains, noting that mining opponents also worry about ongoing prospecting that could lead to more mines in the area.
PolyMet has said that working in an established mining district and reusing the existing infrastructure reduces development costs, as well as new disturbances to the environment. Its reuse of a former taconite processing plant amounts to Minnesota’s largest scrap metal recycling project, the company says.
Weighing other benefits, the project — in addition to the economic boost to the region from workers’ wages — will include an estimated $15 million annually in state and local tax revenues, according to a University of Minnesota Duluth study.
PolyMet notes that it has invested more than $200 million during the process. It’s part of “doing it right,” Cherry told us, stressing that the process is the place to address questions.
Much depends on our ability to ask, and answer, them all in a thoughtful, balanced way.
Every careful step will help us figure out complex issues, and live well with the results.