A Good Debate: Ground Control
A robust copper-nickel industry can also be environmentally responsible
By Frank Ongaro
To depend on copper-nickel mining to spur economic development is unsustainable and shortsighted
By Michelle Lee
Each quarterly issue of Citizens League Voice will feature a section that involves bringing people together to share their differing opinions on a timely issue. We started with Just the Facts, designed to provide objective context for a specific question or area of disagreement.
What follows now are the Opening Arguments, written by policymakers, academics, and engaged community members representing a wide range of opinion and expertise.
Safe and Sound
A robust copper-nickel industry can also be environmentally responsible
By Frank Ongaro
Minnesota is a mining state. We are blessed to have an abundance of mineral resources. At well over four billion tons, our deposit of base and precious metals is one of the worldʼs largest, representing a significant percentage of the domestic supply of these minerals.
From plumbing and electrical to automobiles and cell phones, these metals are used in many aspects of our daily lives. According to the Minerals Education Coalition, every baby born in the United States in 2017 will consume a lifetime total of 3.188 million pounds of minerals, metals, and fuels.
Over the last decade, several Minnesota companies have worked to create safe, sustainable practices that will help the state stay true to its traditions and become a profitable player in the marketplace. Along the way, we’ve fielded queries from those opposed to mineral development due to concerns about protecting water resources, the need for environmental safeguards, how to responsibly pursue reclamation after mining is completed, and whether or not taxpayers will be on the hook when modifications or mistakes are made along the way. These are all issues worthy of discussion. We all want to protect our clean air and water for our children and grandchildren.
Ultimately, the central precept underlying each question is whether or not Minnesota can enjoy both mining growth and a healthy environment. And the answer is an unequivocal yes.
From mineral exploration to mine closure, the state and federal governments require environmental review and adherence to strict standards to protect our air, water, land, and taxpayers.
Thanks to the rigorous and well-established National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and Minnesota Environmental Policy Act (MEPA), no proposed mining project in Minnesota can move forward unless state and federal regulatory agencies determine that it meets strict environmental protection standards. NEPA and MEPA also ensure that impacted communities and other concerned citizens have the opportunity to review and comment on specific proposals.
Additionally, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency compel companies to comply with multiple water quality standards to assure clean and safe water. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Forest Service, and Bureau of Land Management also require a thorough environmental review of potential impacts before permits are issued. Reclamation of all mining and processing activity is mandated and provisions for post-closure maintenance are in place to eliminate the potential for water quality problems. These agencies also have authority to require corrective actions to remedy any issues.
Taxpayers are protected and will not be on the hook for paying for anything that is the financial responsibility of mining companies. Minnesota requires state-managed and annually adjusted bankruptcy-proof financial assurance to cover any possible costs before permits can be issued, and a permit can be revoked if a company does not comply.
In fact, when the state begins to responsibly tap its natural resources, Minnesota taxpayers across the state will directly benefit. In studies conducted by the University of Minnesota–Duluth, the projected positive economic impact of future environmentally responsible copper-nickel mining projects includes the creation of more than 5,000 jobs related to mining operations, 12,000 jobs related to mining construction, $1.5 billion in annual wages, and more than $2.5 billion in annual economic production. Payroll and sales taxes for Minnesota, net proceed taxes for local governments, and royalties to the School Trust Fund provide revenue to every school district in Minnesota.
Keep in mind, copper and nickel production, when thoughtfully pursued, can be as safe as it is successful. The Flambeau Mine across our state border is an excellent example of a copper mine that operated and closed in full compliance with Wisconsin laws. In addition, Eagle Mine in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is operating and safely producing nickel and copper.
“We cannot ignore the fact that mining is essential to our nation’s desire for alternative sources of energy. We need these metals if we want a green economy”
What’s more, we cannot ignore the fact that mining is essential to our nation’s desire for alternative sources of energy. We need these metals if we want a green economy. The largest wind turbines require four tons of copper, and electric vehicles can have as much as twice the amounts of copper and nickel as a regular automobile.
Finally, while the demand for these resources continues to grow, the U.S. Geological Survey clearly shows our nation is significantly import-dependent on all these metals. Which brings up the question: Where do you want your metals to come from? China, Russia, and India, where there is little or no regard for environmental safeguards? African nations, where there are no workplace safeguards and children are being injured and killed? Having to rely on foreign countries for our supply of these necessary metals threatens our national security.
We have the opportunity and responsibility to mine these metals here in Minnesota. We can do it responsibly. We can do it with Minnesota jobs. And we will be able to hold up our operations to the country and entire world as a model of how to do it right.
Thanks to standard state and federal review processes, Minnesota can profit from mining growth without compromising the environment.
- The state has access to over four billion tons of untapped copper, nickel, and platinum group metals, which are essential to a green economy.
- Multiple government agencies require strict adherence to water quality.
- Taxpayers participated in a public review process.
- Relying on foreign countries to supply essential metals threatens human rights, the global environment, and national security.
FRANK ONGARO is executive director of Mining Minnesota, a trade organization group that promotes nonferrous mining in northeastern Minnesota.
Too Dam Risky
Minnesota must update safety standards to prevent mind waste disasters
By Kevin Lee
Minnesota stands at a crossroads unlike any in our state’s history.
As PolyMet seeks our state’s first-ever permit for a copper-nickel mine, the rest of the mining industry watches and waits. Several more mining companies (including industry giants Antofagasta, Teck, and Rio Tinto) have projects for Minnesota that are in the early stages of development. That means many keen observers are waiting to see how our state will establish and enforce environmental and safety standards for an entirely new industry.
Unfortunately, Minnesota’s standards for responsible mining are unprepared to sufficiently address pollution risks from copper-nickel mining. The laws and regulations governing nonferrous mining were crafted in the 1990s and have never been used. Since that time, the industry has changed dramatically, and so have the risks. New processes have created interest in lower ore grades that were not considered economically productive decades ago.
Mining companies are building ever-bigger mines to squeeze economies of scale and maximize profits. This new wave of mega-mines comes at an unacceptably high cost. As mines get bigger, so too does the amount of waste they create. The PolyMet project would produce a pile of mine waste covering nine square miles (about 4,500 football fields) with 900 acres of contaminated water perched on top, about the size of New York City’s Central Park.
At its simplest, the processing of copper-nickel ore involves grinding the rock into powder, then mixing it with large amounts of water and chemicals to capture the tiny metal particles. What remains is a slurry of crushed rock and water—often called mine tailings—that contains everything from arsenic to zinc. While locked away in bedrock, these minerals do no harm, but when released into the environment by the mining process, they can cause cancers, infant mortality, developmental impairments, and other health problems. The challenge faced by most mining companies is what to do with this waste slurry. Like many companies, PolyMet will simply pipe it behind a large dam, leaving what is essentially a very large pile of wet, powdered rock with a polluted lake on the top.
Unfortunately, economic pressures have forced mine projects to get bigger, so mine waste storage facilities have gotten commensurately bigger as well. With more mine waste dams holding back record amounts of mine waste, failures have become increasingly catastrophic, sometimes releasing their entire contents all at once.
“Many countries are rapidly moving to modernize their laws to require more sophisticated mining techniques and more robust monitoring, but Minnesota is lagging behind.”
In 2014, the tailings dam at the Mount Polley copper-gold mine in British Columbia suddenly collapsed, instantly releasing 1.3 billion gallons of mine waste into Hazeltine Creek and Quesnel Lake, a drinking water source for area residents. The sudden deluge scoured trees from Hazeltine Creek and turned what was a four-foot-wide stream into a raging river 150 feet wide. Water sampling showed that the tailings spill contaminated Quesnel Lake with copper, iron, aluminum, and phosphorus, chemicals that can cause liver damage and kidney disease.
An equally catastrophic, even more horrifying incident took place at the Fundão tailings dam in Brazil. At 3:45 p.m. on November 5, 2015, shouts began coming in over the radios at the Samarco iron mine: the dam was collapsing. Workers below the dam looked up to see the entire slope undulating like a wave, as if it were melting. And observers reported that the mine waste that had been solid ground just minutes before transformed into a roiling river. The ensuing deluge destroyed a town and killed nineteen people. The contaminant plume, easily seen from space, entered the Atlantic Ocean hundreds of miles downstream as a large smear of brown amid surrounding azure seas.
Both the Mount Polley and Samarco disasters were preventable. They were not natural disasters. They were human disasters.
The dam collapses were the direct result of mining companies prioritizing production above all else, without giving due regard to the structural integrity of a dam that keeps climbing higher year after year.
These disasters have taught us that there are better ways of storing mine waste, such as dry storage, that would make dam failures a thing of the past. Many countries are rapidly moving to modernize their laws to require more sophisticated mining techniques and more robust monitoring, but Minnesota is lagging behind.
Some countries have outlawed risky practices like open-pit mining. Many others have made substantial improvements in the oversight of tailings dam designs by requiring designs and permits to be reviewed by an independent panel of mine engineers. Minnesota continues to rely primarily on the review of the Department of Natural Resources, a state agency that is also tasked with promoting mineral extraction.
The regulatory bodies that have direct experience with mine disasters, such as those in Montana and British Columbia, have begun implementing specific design standards for the structural integrity of tailings dams—what’s known among mine engineers as a “factor of safety.” Minnesota has no laws or regulations specific to the structural integrity of tailings dams at all. We treat these mine waste dams the same way that we treat any other dam that holds water, even though a tailings dam contains industrial waste.
Our state must act quickly to update our environmental and safety standards to bring us into the twenty-first century. New mines in Minnesota must use the best available practices and pollution control technologies used elsewhere around the world.
Mining’s legacy of contamination and loss is not inherent to mining itself; it is the result of an outdated, bargain-basement way of mining. Despite the oft-repeated platitudes about having the best environmental standards, the unfortunate truth is that Minnesota lags badly behind the rest of the world in working to ensure a safer, more responsible mining industry.
Minnesota’s mining standards are insufficient to protect the state from the risks of copper-nickel mining.
- Thanks to its abundance of nonferrous metals, Minnesota is in a position to establish and enforce environmental and safety standards for an entirely new industry.
- Ever-bigger mines and interest in lower-grade ore have increased the probability of environmental disaster. Previously established regulations are obsolete or have been recently weakened.
- Copper-nickel mining projects should avoid open-pit mining and using tailings dams, which have a track record of collapse.
- An independent panel of engineers, not state agencies with conflicted interests, should review mining permits and plans.
KEVIN LEE is the mining program director and senior staff attorney at the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, a nonprofit advocacy group focused on water, land use, and transportation, clean energy natural resources, and mining.
To depend on copper-nickel mining to spur economic development is unsustainable and shortsighted
By Michelle Lee
In 1983, at the height of a recession, I took a job as a journalist in Duluth, Minnesota. The iron mines were idled—adding to the traumatic loss of 2,400 mining jobs a decade earlier—and area families were leaving to find work elsewhere.
A billboard sprang up on the western edge of the city featuring the now infamous phrase, “Will the last one leaving Duluth please turn off the light.” My news director at the CBS-affiliate KDLH-TV referred to the local economy as a three-legged stool held up by timber, tourism, and taconite. And taconite, the region’s number one economic driver, was particularly unstable.
For more than a century, iron ore mining has sustained families on the Mesabi Iron Range and supported related industry in the port city of Duluth. The ore used to win two world wars was supplied out of the Mesabi, Vermillion, and Cuyuna Ranges. The communities that are strung across the ranges were established because of iron ore mining and grew with waves of immigrants whose labor powered the industry. They were the “rangers” who fought to form the unions that protect iron ore miners to this day.
The development of taconite, ability to recover additional iron materials from mining waste, and new methods of steelmaking are helping to extend the life of this important industry, which continues to provide economic security for hundreds of hardworking Northlanders and their families. Still, the accelerated development of iron ore mines in other countries, in concert with the globalization of the steel market, have resulted in a significant reduction in the number of mining jobs on the Range. What’s more, mechanization and technology have allowed companies to produce more goods with less labor. In 1920, there were 20,000 iron miners, with 2,050 metric tons produced per worker. Today, there are approximately 4,000 miners, with 13,000 metric tons produced per worker.
Now comes the promise of 350 additional jobs from foreign-owned corporations whose records of environmental degradation and ill treatment of laborers is well documented. They propose to develop copper-nickel sulfide mining within the St. Louis River and Boundary Water Canoe Area Wilderness watersheds.
This is particularly concerning because—while iron ore mining and taconite production is a well-developed industry that’s stood the test of time—sulfide mines, like those found on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, dependably and permanently pollute surrounding water with carcinogens and neurotoxins, which in turn destroys thousands of acres of land. Open-pit sulfide mines, like the one being pursued by the PolyMet Mining development company, would be no different. It will pollute a watershed that feeds our largest Great Lake, and promises to destroy thousands of highly valuable biodiversity sites and wetlands in Superior National Forest.
The risk—not to mention the investment in time, resources, and political capital—isn’t worth it. Chances are good that the promised jobs don’t take into account the ever-increasing automation of the mining process. And, even if every single job materialized, they are tied to the twenty- to twenty five-year-life of the mine, ensuring yet another economic bust.
To protect the environmental and economic health of the Arrowhead region, we Minnesotans need to expand our horizons and develop environmentally sustainable, economically stable industries that—in tandem with traditional forms of iron mining—can reinvigorate communities on the Range throughout the twenty-first century and beyond. We must invest in green energy technology, support farm-to-table production, and invest in the creation of small businesses that are already proving to be engines of economic growth.
The first step in the process would involve building out broadband and high-speed internet systems that connect our rural areas with the world. The current patchwork of state and federal grants isn’t enough to cover all the regions left out in the cold. During the Great Depression, the Rural Electrification Act was created to serve our rural areas. This is a history lesson we need to embrace. Adequate broadband and high-speed networks open the doors to increased educational access, telemedicine services, and business opportunities for those who prefer to live in small towns and rural areas.
“We must invest in green energy technology, support farm-to-table production, and invest in the creation of small businesses.”
Supporters of sulfide mining argue that we have the best regulations in the world and Minnesotans can get it right. There are no guarantees the regulation and future of the industry will be left up to local citizens, however. In Washington, D.C., essential rules and regulations can be and are being rolled back with the stroke of a pen. When the mines play out and the last profits are counted, it will be too late to reclaim our water and the millions of acres of natural environment where Minnesotans live, work, hunt, fish, and play.
Our pristine nature is itself a commodity with tremendous growth potential. Residents of and visitors to the Eighth District love the outdoors, spending $1.88 billion a year on water sports, camping, and fishing. Sales of leisure and hospitality businesses grew 50 percent from 2004 to 2016. According to Explore Minnesota, tourism in the northeastern region of the state provides over 17,000 jobs and accounted for over $933 million in gross sales in 2016. The resulting sales tax put nearly $61 million in the state’s coffers.
As we move forward together to build a diverse and thriving economy, we must do all we can to protect the Land of 10,000 Lakes, which is bordered by one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world—a “Superior” and precious resource in and of itself. And while some say everything has risk, I believe the hazards associated with the current copper-nickel sulfide mining proposals are too great. One misstep would burden generations to come.
The pursuit of copper-nickel mining in Minnesota for economic development is unsustainable and shortsighted.
- Copper-nickel mines are being proposed by foreign-owned corporations with a record of environmental degradation and ill treatment of workers.
- The jobs ostensibly created by copper-nickel mining will be impacted by automation and are limited to the twenty- to twenty-five-year life of the mine.
- To ensure economic growth, northeastern Minnesota should invest in environmentally stable industries.
- Pristine water and land attracts tourism and generates wealth. Copper-nickel mining exposes these invaluable resources to too much risk.
MICHELLE LEE is an award-winning journalist and DFL candidate seeking to replace Representative Rick Nolan to become the Eighth Congressional District’s first congresswoman.
Fuel for Recovery
Responsible copper-nickel mining is essential to Minnesota’s economic future
By Nancy Norr
Minnesota has a rich iron mining history. For more than 130 years, generations of mining families in the northern part of the state have flourished and protected the environment. Just as areas of Minnesota with a rich agricultural heritage have prospered, northern Minnesota has as well, due to its abundance of natural resources. This tradition is something on which the state can continue to build as it enters a new era of copper-nickel mining, which promises widespread economic benefit.
Strategic metals, including copper, nickel, platinum, and palladium, were discovered in Minnesota more than seventy years ago, but development projects were not pursued due to the lack of economically viable and environmentally responsible extraction methods.
Today, new state-of-the-art mining technologies allow for the successful—and profitable—development of copper-nickel mining operations. This potential is particularly important to northeastern Minnesota, as communities in this region have been slower than the Twin Cities to recover from the Great Recession of 2007–2009, the worst economic decline since the Great Depression. As a result, a sustainable recovery took longer than it did in the wake of two previous downturns in the late twentieth century. Today, even though Minnesota fares well compared to other areas of the United States, the pains of this slow recovery are still being felt, especially outside of the Twin Cities.
In Greater Minnesota, low incomes and the vulnerability of the economy remain top concerns, according to a 2016 Blandin Foundation survey. Keeping young people in rural communities remains a constant challenge due to the lack of well-compensated job opportunities. The American Community Survey found the median household income in the Twin Cities metro area was $73,231 in 2016. In St. Louis County, that figure drops to $49,395. In the city of Virginia, the median household income is just $35,150—less than half of the median income in the Twin Cities.
The rural-urban economic disparity can cause geographic tensions and differences in opinion in how to chart our economic future. Some who live outside Minnesota mining communities might claim that because mining is antiquated, economically undependable, or dangerous to the environment, it should not be allowed in the state. However, many Minnesotans, including those who have worked in the mining industry for decades, disagree. These workers, families, technical advisors, and service providers appreciate the economic values and traditions of the mining industry and they also revere the wilderness and depend on the existence of clean drinking water. They also choose to work and live in areas where hunting and fishing are convenient outdoor recreational activities.
Copper-nickel mining will not sacrifice the environment we all love. Robust state and federal regulatory processes, along with Minnesota’s strong environmental protections and accountability measures, ensure that the industry can coexist with the wilderness and provide opportunities for families now and into the future.
The economic potential of copper-nickel mining is well studied. According to a 2012 study by the University of Minnesota–Duluth’s Labovitz School of Business and Economics, for every job in the copper-nickel mining industry, two additional jobs will be created in other industries, like manufacturing, retail, and hospitality.
Not only is the quantity of jobs generated from mining impressive, but so are the quality of those jobs. These are high-paying jobs that sustain families, offer benefits, ensure a secure retirement, and put kids through college. The average wage for a mining job in the United States in 2016 was just shy of $74,000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This figure is 38 percent higher than the average wage for all other industries. In Minnesota, the earnings potential for a mining job is even higher—over $77,000 in 2016 or 41 percent higher than the average annual wage for all other industries.
In addition to the high quantity and quality of mining jobs, copper-nickel mining offers enduring careers. It is not a boom-bust industry, as is too often suggested. In 1977, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources estimated that the Duluth Complex, the geological formation where companies are pursuing copper-nickel mining projects, holds more than four billion tons of ore containing copper, nickel, platinum, palladium, and gold. More than forty years later, research gathered by companies exploring the area for these valuable minerals suggests that resources are much greater, offering ample supply to support up to a century of mining.
“For every job in the copper-nickel mining industry, two additional jobs will be created in other industries, like manufacturing, retail, and hospitality.”
Today we are highly dependent on foreign sources for the very metals that exist in abundance in Minnesota. Long-term, local access to these minerals translates to more independence for our nation’s economy and ensures that ethical standards for natural resource development are upheld. The emerging green economy needs minerals like copper to power wind turbines, nickel for stainless steel components in solar panels, and platinum for the catalytic converters in cars that convert pollutant gases into less harmful ones. Our nation’s dependence on imports to supply these critical industries means we are purchasing minerals from countries that may not have strong environmental standards or labor laws.
It is human nature to always strive for what is better. We want better jobs for our citizens and a better tomorrow for our children, which starts with high-quality public schools funded in part by mining royalties paid into the Minnesota Permanent School Trust Fund. New copper-nickel mining projects are estimated to generate $3 billion for this fund, supporting the education of 900,000 students statewide.
Minnesota’s economic foundation includes mining. Our state’s strong economic future includes environmentally responsible copper-nickel mining.
Responsible copper-nickel mining is essential to Minnesota’s economic future and growth.
- Low incomes and economic vulnerability is a top concern in Greater Minnesota, where attracting and retaining young workers remains a challenge.
- Thanks to state-of-the-art technology, copper-nickel mining promises to continue Minnesota’s rich mining history and tradition.
- For every job in the copper-nickel mining industry, two additional jobs will be created in other industries, such as manufacturing, retail, and hospitality.
- Long-term, local access to these nonferrous metals results in economic independence and ensures ethical standards for natural resource development are upheld.
NANCY NORR is director of regional development at Minnesota Power, a Duluth-based utility company, and serves as chair of Jobs for Minnesotans, a coalition of labor, community, and business leaders who support copper-nickel mining.