A Good Debate: Ground Control


Summer 2018

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. That was followed by Opening Arguments, written by policymakers, academics, and engaged community members representing a wide range of opinion and expertise.

Now, a Cross-Exam of each contributor. Conducted by the editors, this is an effort to further explore the nuance of each argument and provide a model for thoughtful questioning.


Questions for Frank Ongaro

Safe and Sound


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.
Q: Environmentalists say regulations governing nonferrous mining were created in the 1990s. And while the industry and the attendant risks have changed since then, the regulations have not. Is that an accurate statement or an oversimplification?

FO: It’s true that in the nineties, a significant amount of the nonferrous rules were promulgated. It’s also true that every stakeholder was at the table. The same groups who are saying that the laws aren’t what they should be were there, participating in putting the standards, laws, requirements, and rules in place. And, yes, technology has improved for the better. But that’s helped diminish risk, not exacerbate it. Companies have to continue to meet the standards each and every year: staff from the Mine Safety Health Administration practically live on site, and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and Department of Natural Resources visit the properties on a regular basis. So if something happens, or there’s a violation of any standards, it gets corrected—and everyone involved will work together to mitigate the issue. They go back to the drawing board, they improve the technology based on what’s available, and onward we go—a more productive operation, as in any industry.

Q: There’s a concern that tailings dams are particularly susceptible to accidents and mistakes, whereas dry storage is more effective and cost-effective. Is there any chance the projects currently proposed could still shift to dry storage?

“If something happens, or there’s a violation of any standards, it gets corrected. Everyone involved will work together to mitigate the issue.”

FO: Dry stack storage is an option for the industry. Right now, though, we have only one project: PolyMet. It was proposed and scoped, it has gone through environmental review, and it’s been determined that the tailing facility is adequate and permanable for the twenty-year life of the mine. Future projects coming forward may or may not propose something different. We’ll see.

Q: Tailings dams have failed at other sites, though. Isn’t that a concern?

FO: I think all companies look at other companies in other jurisdictions around the planet and learn from whatever problems happen to arise. But a lot of the comparisons that are made—Mount Polley [in British Columbia], Fundão [in Brazil]—are apples and oranges. Different projects have a different structure, different slopes, different types of binders to ensure stability, etc. So the idea that, “Oh, if it happened in British Columbia, it can happen in northeastern Minnesota,” that’s pretty speculative. Plus, it’s important to keep in mind that companies in Minnesota are required to identify ways to prevent pollution and problems in the first place. And we have systems in place, structurally and financially, to deal with problems if they arise. So, you know, first you avoid it. Then, if there is a problem, you have something in place to make sure it can be addressed. Can you plan for everything? I don’t know. Could Halley’s Comet smash into us tomorrow? Sure. Anything’s possible. The question is what’s probable.

Q: How do you respond to the criticism that the public hearings that have been held to discuss copper-nickel mining are just a dog and pony show? That people voice their concerns and nothing significant
ever changes?

FO: Wow. I just think that’s really inaccurate and unfair. We’ve got a comprehensive, thorough environmental review and regulatory process, and a significant part of that involves public comment and citizen input. That’s extremely important for the people in the affected area and all over the state. Every stakeholder has an opportunity to submit their support and their concerns, and the regulatory agencies are listening and forming policy accordingly. The PolyMet project, for example, is different today than it was when it was going through its original environmental review. The agencies and others said, “Hey, something’s not looking right.” So the planners went back, they retooled, they redrew, and they came back with a revised proposal. And then there was a second round of hearings three years later. So the process, even though it takes way too much time, is working.

Questions for Kevin Lee

Too Dam Risky


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.
Q: There’s a sense among mining advocates that no amount of regulation would satisfy the environmental movement. Are you against mining, no matter what?

KL: Our organization [MCEA] recognizes that mining is important to the state’s economy and the national economy. We are also acutely aware of the need for minerals like copper and nickel. And it’s true that certain people who identify themselves as anti-mining sometimes fail to acknowledge these realities. On the other hand, a lot of the pro-mining talking points suffer from a similar sort of willful blindness regarding the risks posed by this industry. People have to acknowledge that the need for copper is not going away, and people have to acknowledge that getting that copper is very risky. Until that happens, the issue will continue to polarize people. Our position is simple: We don’t have to accept bargain basement mining that puts communities at risk. We can be better than that.

Q: Have the companies that are planning to mine in Minnesota shown a willingness to discuss dry stacking?

“Let’s truly be a world leader. Let’s export safe technology rather than import unsafe mining.”

KL: No. They aren’t considering it. And I would go so far as to say that it would address the vast majority of the concerns that we have for these facilities. But once these sorts of projects get under way, they get on greased wheels and no one is in the mood to slow down and reconsider their original plans. I mean, sure, we had public meetings for the environmental impact statement—where people line up to speak at a microphone, and they have their two minutes, and then they go home. It’s not meaningful engagement. A real conversation with stakeholders would look a whole lot different than that.

Q: Can you give a very specific example relevant to copper-nickel extraction where Minnesota’s regulations are too lenient?

KL: There are a number of states that, unlike Minnesota, specifically prohibit mining that requires perpetual water treatment, including Michigan, Maine, and New Mexico. If we were to use processes like filtered tailings [also called dry stacking], we could get as close as is humanly possibly to eliminating the risk of water treatment. The tailings facility would become more like a landfill than anything else. You would treat the water and discharge it during operations, and then what you’d be left with, basically, is slightly wet sand. It would have a smaller footprint because you’re not talking about as much volume. Then you line the landfill at the bottom, put the tailings on top, and cap it. That’s the best way that we have to eliminate the risk of water treatment. It requires a little bit more money up front. If you’re looking at the lifetime of the mine, though, it’s much cheaper.

Q: Wouldn’t it be better to mine in Minnesota, where workers are paid fairly and the environmental standards are more stringent, than in other countries around the world?

KL: I think it’s very disingenuous to use that logic to try to push through financially and environmentally risky mines in Minnesota. And I don’t think we should allow ourselves to be swayed by the argument that if we don’t mine here we’re going to be hurting kids in the Third World who are going to be poisoned. That’s insulting. There’s no connection. Those mines will stay open and do damage no matter what we do here. Rather than use bad mining practices around the world as an excuse, let’s take advantage of new technologies and do everything we can to behave responsibly. Let’s refine things like filtered tailings to make them cheaper and more accessible for everyone. Let’s truly be a world leader. Let’s export safe technology rather than import unsafe mining.

Questions for Michelle Lee

Fool’s Gold


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.
Q: What do you think is the biggest misconception regarding your position on copper-nickel mining?

ML: That I’m against jobs, that I’m against unions, and that I’m against industry north of Hinckley. I get it, though. People want and need jobs. They want and need good-paying jobs. And they want to support economy development so that they can live, work, and play in the northland. Now, I would imagine that deep in their hearts and minds, they might be questioning whether copper-nickel sulfide mining is the answer. But mining has always been the way on the Iron Range. It’s easier, and much less frightening, to go back to what we know and what has worked in the past.

Q: The 350 jobs PolyMet says it will generate would be some of the highest-paying in the region. How does that factor into your criticism of copper-nickel mining? And what other industries could generate that sort of security?

“When I travel the state I see “Help Wanted” signs for truck drivers, for welders, and for electricians. It’s the trades that are desperate for workers.”

ML: When considering unemployment and wages in Minnesota, I can’t help but ask, do we have a shortage of workers or do we have a shortage of jobs? And what I am seeing, and what I am hearing, is that we have a shortage of trained workers. For at least twenty years, we’ve wanted our children to succeed in the future, so we pushed them into going to four-year colleges and beyond. Now a generation of young people is saddled with enormous debt and many of them can’t find jobs in their chosen professions. When I travel the state I see “Help Wanted” signs for truck drivers, for welders, and for electricians. It’s the trades that are desperate for workers. So I think that we have to start flipping that switch and telling our kids, “You know what, if you want to go to a vo-tech school, if you want to go into the trades, you have my blessing because you will have portable skills that you can take anywhere and there are jobs waiting.” And as my generation continues to retire there will be even more.

Q: The emerging green economy needs copper to make wind turbines, nickel to produce solar panels, and platinum for catalytic converters. Why would we turn to other countries, which may be violating environmental laws and labor standards, for these materials?

ML: I think science will take us to a point someday where we may be able to extract these minerals here in the U.S. without jeopardizing our water, which is our most strategic national resource. I also think we could be working much harder to recycle metals. We throw away more copper in a year than the PolyMet mine could produce in twenty. In the meantime, we have international laws against child labor. We need to be putting pressure on foreign governments and multinational companies to make sure those laws are followed and that we do not have children mining these metals. It’s much like conflict diamonds or blood diamonds. When we know better, we do better.

Q: Is investment in mining versus investment in other forms of economic development in the region a zero-sum game?

ML: It doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. When it comes to iron ore mining, for instance, I think that we have the resources and the ingenuity to do both. But copper-nickel mining is different. Think about tourism: It’s big business here in the northland. A lot of people have invested their futures into lake homes and they come up on weekends. And a lot of them want to retire here, making those cabins their full-time homes. We have built and will build businesses and entire industries around serving that population. We can’t jeopardize that with the promise of 200, 400, or even 1,000 jobs—especially if the industry that provides those jobs destroys the public lands and pristine beauty that people from all over the state love and cherish.

Questions for Nancy Norr

Fuel for Recovery


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.
Q: One could argue that the cyclical nature of mining has contributed to Greater Minnesota’s economic woes over the past twenty years. How is copper-nickel mining any different?

NN: I think it’s a fair point and worth debating. But where I think we differ with our opposition is that they don’t see the nonferrous mining opportunity as being sufficiently diverse from our traditional iron mining activities. We can address some of the industry’s cyclicality by appreciating differences in commodity pricing—you don’t have the same level of competition with copper-nickel mining as you do with iron—as well as staying alert to both new markets and new products.

Q: You argue that attracting young workers to the region and retaining them here is essential. Do you think mining can serve that purpose?

NN: I think there is a tradition of working within the natural resource–based development industries in this region that goes much broader than any specific job available in a copper-nickel mine. Part of the work I’ve been doing the last six years is to help these projects establish their social license in the region. And these projects have been put to the test. If local leaders didn’t think these companies were capable of being good corporate citizens, they would not support them. As a mom of two kids in their twenties, I can also tell you that young people want to have great purpose, work for a responsible employer, and make a good living so they can enjoy living in a region they love. That’s what will keep young people here in Greater Minnesota.

“Young people want to have great purpose, work for a responsible employer, and make a good living so they can enjoy living in a region they love.”

Q: You write about the “economic values and traditions of mining.” Could you describe these traditions and values more specifically?

NN: [Aurora] Mayor Dave Lislegard talks about how “the history of the region is as deep as the minerals” under his feet. The iron produced in this region built America, it won the world wars. Now certain people in your readership, especially those who don’t come from this culture, might think that’s hokey. But it’s no different from the pride a farmer has for helping to feed America. I also feel strongly that we no longer understand where things come from. Many of the same people who oppose copper-nickel mining simultaneously support technologies that need these metals, like electric vehicles, wind turbines, and solar panels. We as a country are the highest consumer per capita of precious metals, and the fact that many are willing to import those metals from countries with lower environmental standards and public safety or child labor laws strikes me as incredibly elitist.

Q: Given the rapidity of technological innovation, is it reasonable to assume the jobs created by these proposed mining projects will last for more than a few years, let alone a generation?

NN: Automation, I think, is how we measure progress in our country. And it tends to elevate the quality of the jobs that remain and the pay involved. So you know, will it ever become “driverless-car” mining? I don’t believe so. But I think technology will only enhance our ability to do these projects in an environmentally responsible manner. It will also enhance our ability to mitigate and return land to the quality that we expect and demand once the mining is over, and to me it only improves the quality of life of those who are in the industry.


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