GUEST COLUMN: It’s time to let the dirt fly

Brainerd Dispatch
Rolf Westgard 

In 2010, we humans extracted and burned some 15 billion tons of coal, oil, and natural gas, or 4,200 pounds for every one on earth. That put more than 30 billion tons of green house gases into the atmosphere. 

Nature passed over Minnesota on its way to states like North Dakota and Texas where it placed the sedimentary basins in which fossil fuels like oil formed. Minnesota was not totally forgotten, and we got minerals like iron ore and the non-ferrous group of copper, nickel, cobalt, palladium, platinum, etc. We’ve dug up most of the iron. But nestled in a band, meandering along the Archean granite of the Iron Range, is a world class undisturbed deposit of non-ferrous metals worth billions of dollars and thousands of jobs.  

Total world annual production of those metals is just 30 pounds or so per person, and their demand and price is rising. Manufacturing wind turbines, solar panels, electric vehicles, catalytic converters, and smart grid power lines requires copper, nickel, cobalt, palladium, and platinum. 

The state of Minnesota owns more than 6,000 acres of land in the region, and it stands to collect $2.5 billion in royalties in the coming decades if mining proceeds. This state property is known as “school trust lands.” Under the Minnesota Constitution, income from such lands is earmarked for the Permanent School Fund, which now contributes about $60 per pupil to every school district. An analysis by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources projected that the school fund, with assets of $720 million, could more than triple in size with copper royalties over 25 to 30 years. 

Two mining ventures have long-term federal and state government leases to mine those metals. The largest venture is the open pit NorthMet Project by Polymet Corporation of Canada with its partner the big Swiss metals company, Glencore. This project expects annual metal production of 38,800 tons of copper, 9,000 tons of nickel, 400 tons of cobalt, 22,200 ounces of platinum, 87,100 ounces of palladium, and 13,800 ounces of gold.

The other mine is the underground Nokomis Project, a partnership of Duluth Metals of Canada, Twin Metals Minnesota LLC, and Chile’s Antofagasta, the world’s largest copper producer.

Environmentalists are lined up in opposition to these projects, viewing them as a serious threat to water quality. The issue is that these ores are reactive sulfide minerals. When mined, the sulfur comes in contact with water and oxygen, forming sulfuric acid. This acid can then dissolve and carry away toxic elements, polluting water supplies in a process known as Acid Rock Drainage (ARD).

In the past, acidic metal-rich waters from mining have damaged the environment when mining companies did not follow safe practices. Today mining companies have to be good stewards of the environment, and our laws are made to ensure this happens.

At Ladysmith, Wisconsin. Kennecott operated an open pit copper sulfide mine that operated 140 feet from the Flambeau River in the 1990s. During the mining operation all of the surface area drainage and pit pumping water went into a treatment plant that successfully purified the water so it could be safely returned to the environment. Upon closure, to avoid ARD, the pit was backfilled with the waste rock that was stripped from the pit along with 30,000 tons of limestone. Limestone was added as an ingredient to neutralize any ARD that formed while the pit was exposed. There were no violations of its permits in construction, operation and closure. These are the kind of practices that are required in Minnesota.

Project advocates include Congressman Cravaack, Senators Klobuchar and Franken, and area mayors who want those quality jobs on the depressed Iron Range.

 The 714-page Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for the NorthMet Project from the Minnesota DNR and the Corps of Engineers confirmed good practices, and it is generally positive about the project. It states that if all commitments are met, there is no serious impact on the environment. The following quote from the DEIS on the Partridge River applies to the total area involved:

  “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.”

It is time for the dirt to fly.

ROLF WESTGARD is a professional member, Geological Society of America. He teaches classes on energy subjects for the University of Minnesota Lifelong Learning program. 

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