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Northern Minnesota non-ferrous mining, from multiple perspectives
That headline is misleading; based on what I've seen, there are as many perspectives on this complicated and politically loaded issue, as there are people paying attention. What I'm trying to do, is present the main arguments, without overt bias on my part, until the last paragraph of this, which is a ways off.
This primer covers the bases.
Two huge copper-nickel mining projects are under consideration in northern Minnesota, which holds one of the world's largest untapped copper deposits. Better technology, together with rising copper prices the past decade, are making large scale metals mining cost-effective here and potentially very lucrative.
One company, PolyMet, wants to build an open pit operation to mine copper and other metals. Another venture, Twin Metals, plans a massive, largely underground mine southeast of Ely -- a company official has likened it to an "underground city" -- stretching near the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Called the Nokomis project, it would be one of the largest private ventures ever launched in Minnesota -- the company estimates its state investment could top $2 billion eventually, more than double the value of, say, a new Vikings stadium.
There is the perspective that mining companies should be allowed to proceed without any concern for the environment, while paying workers, and providing for their safety, as little as possible (and even stealing part of that), because that's "the magic of the market" at work, and will make everyone millionaires in due course. That's what Saint Ronnie Reagan (supposedly) believed, so it must be true. I don't consider that worthy of serious presentation, and I'm quite confident that the vast majority of those that do us the honor of regularly visiting Mn Progressive Project don't, either. So, among other considerations, I'm not wasting people's time with puerile fantasy.
Regarding the economic potential, aka jobs, estimates that appear in various places mostly seem to ultimately refer back to this University of Minnesota-Duluth study (PDF). That report is long and involved, and one typically sees something like the following in pro-mining publications (PDF).
In a 2009 study, the University of Minnesota-Duluth found more than 12,000 Minnesota construction jobs and 5,000 Minnesota long-term mining jobs will be created if all strategic metals mining projects currently under study become operational.
That would be a pretty good deal. There are, however, many questions, which are being discussedin a highly informative, ongoing series of blog posts.
The most comparable example of a new copper mine opening in the United States over the past two decades, the Safford Mine in Arizona, demonstrates the complicated economic effects of opening a new mine in a traditional mining district. The bottom line is that opening a new mine can increase both employment and unemployment. How? The short-term boom of building a mine comes with both economic benefits and significant costs, and the long-term effect is an increase in the volatility in the local economy. The Safford mine, opened in 2007, was far from a source of stability during our most recent economic downturn. Instead, the increased dependence on mining caused a quadrupling in unemployment at the bottom of the recession.
Here's another interesting item,suggesting that there could be a shortage of qualified workers in the region for these projects. Steps are being taken, to look to remedy that.
The debate over potential environmental impacts, is the one that is seriously full-on. Very loosely, the arguments can be put into four categories:
- The proposed mining can proceed in an environmentally responsible way, under current law.
Minnesota does have strong environmental regulations in place. These regulations have been under pressure. Water quality standards related to wild rice have been threatened in the state legislature. Minnesota's strong clean air and energy standards were severely challenged this year in an effort to allow more dirty coal burning.
While everyone agreed on the importance of "doing it right," the big question hanging in the air in Ely was how to ensure that it's done right. Minnesota has strong environmental regulations, and mining supporters including corporate executives said that the mining companies would "meet or exceed" these environmental standards. Corporations do not meet environmental standards because they want to, they do so because, by law, they have to.
It was clear from this meeting that northern Minnesota wants to have jobs AND clean water. The only way to have jobs AND clean water is to keep these strong environmental standards in place.
- The proposed mining can proceed in an environmentally responsible way, but only with more stringent oversight and regulationthan is provided for in current law.
The neighboring states of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, as well as the province of Ontario, operate independently of one another when it comes to permitting, regulating, and monitoring prospective mines. And yet water is not constrained by state borders and neither are pollutants. The environmental impacts of sulfide mining in one of these jurisdictions may reach well beyond its border. Federal oversight of permitting and monitoring new mines is severely limited, but sorely needed.
With the recent boom in exploration across the Lake Superior basin, proper oversight has never been more important.
- Mining companies need to "prove it first,"that they can do this without harming the environment, given that they've never been able to undertake projects like this before without making big, dangerous, lasting messes.
A recent Associated Press article was titled "100 days of oil: Gulf life will never be the same." Minnesota is staring at the possibility of multiple sulfide mines, mines that would impact watersheds of both the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Lake Superior, creating a sulfide-mining district instead of a lake district. Why wait until sulfide mining permanently changes our waters, our economic and recreational way of life in Minnesota? It is easy to act shocked after a disaster happens; it takes courage to act to prevent it.
If we are truly going to protect our waters from proven-to-pollute sulfide mining, we must ensure those waters are given unequivocal protection by enacting "prove it first" legislation in 2011. Prove it first, before a permit is considered for a sulfide mine in Minnesota, that such a mine can be operated and closed for 10 years without water contamination. Wisconsin has such legislation. Are our waters worth less? Ask your legislator.
(The referenced legislation in Wisconsin, by the way, is under serious attack, and will presumably be history in the unlikely, but by no means impossible, event that GOPers plus a handful of pro-mining Democrats retain legislative control there, next year.)
- Non-ferrous mining in Northern Minnesota should not be allowed to proceed, period.
The media need to start telling the whole story about newly-proposed mining projects in Northern Minnesota. The public should know about how mines such as those proposed by the Canadian company PolyMet will affect the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) and other natural areas and resources in Minnesota.
These mining projects are both economically toxic and environmentally unsound...
This is not hypothetical. It's guaranteed. Everywhere that sulfide mining has been done it has resulted in irreversible environmental harm. Once the sulfur-rich soil and rock is disturbed, the process of leaching will begin, and it will continue essentially forever. Let me repeat: forever. Any attempt at cleanup would have to go on forever also, costing the taxpayers large sums of money in perpetuity.
One could absolutely argue that, in practical terms, there's little, if any, difference between "prove it first" and an outright ban. This websitecertainly has plenty of both.
In my vision of a well-run world ("well-run" by ourselves, that is), our metals needs would be dealt with by conservation, recycling, more efficient technologies, a societal move to less materials-oriented lifestyles, and, for the time being, the outputs from existing mines. The need for well-paying jobs would be supplied, very, very nicely, by making the rich man and his corporations pay back the last 30+ years worth of tax cut welfare, subsidy handouts, and the like, and investing much of that revenue, especially in education, health care, and green infrastructure. My "vision" is not going to eventuate, any time soon. I see this mining thing as a lot like the Vikings stadium; it's going to happen, and the best we can do is work to get as good a deal as possible, from a progressive standpoint. Regarding said stadium, I know that that didn't work out so well.