COMMUNITY VOICES | Saving our lake country

(Photos courtesy of Craig Blacklock, ©Craig Blacklock)

Over a century ago, on February 13, 1909, President Theodore Roosevelt signed a proclamation creating the Superior National Forest.

On the 75th Anniversary of the Superior National Forest’s inception I wrote about the origins of my love for northern Minnesota in the Naturalist Magazine. I wrote about “places of deep blue waters, rugged shoreline and sunsets that envelop the soul.”

“…There was one summer night, long past the time of the sun, when the water was dark but the sky was covered with a bright lacing of stars. Light from my little cabin touched the lake with a long reaching glimmer; pine stretched upward into the night sky, and from somewhere in distant reaches came that familiar haunting cry of the loon. I stepped into the water and slowly walked out toward the depths. When I was well within the cool lake I swam forward into the darkness where water and air are separated only by feeling…”

Almost exactly 105 years after Roosevelt created the Superior National Forest, we are about to destroy it.

If PolyMet is permitted our lake country will be gone, as we know it

The Star Tribune recently printed results from its Minnesota Poll. One question asked: “Do you think Minnesota should approve or reject the application from PolyMet for a new copper and nickel mine on the Iron Range?” The question was flawed.

PolyMet’s proposed mine is not on the Iron Range. And it would not be a “new” mine; there has never been a sulfide mine in Minnesota – with good reason, our water. In any poll, or in a Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement (SDEIS), perception is important.

PolyMet’s SDEIS states: “The NorthMet Project area, including the Mine Site, Plant Site, and connecting infrastructure, would be in St. Louis County, Minnesota, and situated at the eastern end of the Mesabi Iron Range.” That statement is false. The NorthMet Mine Pit would not be on the Iron Range. It would be on Superior National Forest land approximately six miles from the plant site. It would be in the Duluth Complex, where the predominant mineral sulfide is copper-nickel, not iron. PolyMet’s Mine Plant (LTV’s old taconite plant) is on the Iron Range. The Iron Range is not the Duluth Complex.

The misrepresentation by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) was not limited to PolyMet’s SDEIS. On Feb. 11, at the Minnesota House Environment, Natural Resources, and Agriculture Finance Committee hearing (concerning financial assurance and PolyMet), Director Jess Richards, DNR Division of Lands and Minerals, began his presentation by placing PolyMet’s proposed NorthMet Project on the Iron Range.

Edison, the mining investment firm commissioned by PolyMet, also placed the Project on the Iron Range, even as it acknowledged, "The NorthMet ore body is located south of the eastern end of the historic Mesabi Iron Range in north-eastern Minnesota."

But PolyMet Mining Corp. just plain fibbed: “The [NorthMet] deposit is located in the Mesabi [Iron] Range, northeastern Minnesota’s established mining district … ” Not true! According to Barr Engineering, “The ore body of interest [NorthMet] is present within the Duluth Complex. … The Biwabik Iron Formation will not be intersected by mining.”

An early document, “PolyMet Mining Inc. – Hoyt Lakes, Mn. Corporate Overview, NorthMet – Advancing Toward Production,” stated, “The PolyMet project is located in northeastern Minnesota, immediately south of the northeastern end of the famed Mesabi Iron Range.”

Buying a taconite plant for the price of scrap does not entitle one to magically move the location of an ore body. The proposed NorthMet Mine pit would be dug in the NorthMet ore body in the Duluth Complex on Superior National Forest Land. Not on the Iron Range.

So why is PolyMet’s SDEIS inaccurate? Why place the entire project on the Iron Range?

Misrepresentation has critical implications for Minnesota

PolyMet’s SDEIS contains numerous comparisons, studies, modeling, and assessment of cumulative impact effects that were based on information from the Iron Range; not on information from where all the proposed and prospective sulfide mines would really be – where PolyMet’s NorthMet Mine would be – in the disseminated copper-nickel, sulfide bearing, fractured rock of the Duluth Complex. On Superior National Forest land. On land that has never been mined – our lake lands.

Clever. Just put your head in a hole in the ground. That way no one has to look at what would happen when the other proposed or foreseeable sulfide mines would be up and running in the Duluth Complex; in an area adjacent to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW). In the Kawishiwi Watershed, part of the Rainy River Watershed that includes Voyageurs National Park and flows to the Canadian border – and beyond.

That way no one has to do a cost-benefit analysis or cumulative effects analysis for the total cumulative impact area – in both the Lake Superior and Rainy River Watersheds. To be included as an integral part of PolyMet’s SDEIS.

That way no one has to acknowledge the future annihilation of an entire region of northeastern Minnesota’s lake country by sulfide mining corporations. Why? Our agencies have chosen to ignore it.

The very agencies charged with making decisions in the best interest of the people of Minnesota have decided to use an interpretation of, “past, present, and reasonably foreseeable future actions,” to exclude all future sulfide mining projects from any cumulative impacts analysis for PolyMet’s SDEIS. Even though we all know that if PolyMet is seeking a permit, there is little doubt that Duluth Metals, Antofagasta, and Teck American (or their equivalent) will follow suit.

Twin Metals (Antofagasta and Duluth Metals) has just released its Mid-Prefeasibility Study. If the document does not qualify as a verification of “reasonably foreseeable future actions,” what does? There is a higher probability, and more proof, that Twin Metals will seek a permit than there is that PolyMet will successfully operate a wastewater treatment facility “for perpetuity” (as stated in PolyMet’s Preliminary SDEIS).

Brazenly, Rep. David Dill sat at the House Committee hearing on financial assurance and pointedly questioned Margaret Watkins (Grand Portage Band of Chippewa) as she outlined impacts to the Lake Superior Watershed; Dill smugly interrupting her line of testimony to educate those “who aren’t in the know” that PolyMet would only affect the Lake Superior Watershed. As if Lake Superior was not important enough! Disingenuous; he was fully aware of the implications, the foreseeable impacts to the Kawishiwi Watershed and the BWCAW.

The agencies are also ignoring PolyMet’s tipping point effect on more than a century of damage caused by mining in the Lake Superior Watershed; forty years ago the Minnesota Regional Copper-Nickel Study (1974-1979) raised the concern that “production near existing iron facilities might exceed established environmental guidelines.” (MN Legislative Library) Now Twin Metals has just pulled a switcheroo and is looking at a “potential” site for its tailings basin in the Lake Superior Watershed.

Rep. Dill and other like-minded legislators never have to acknowledge reality; in addition to the toxicity of 99% waste from PolyMet’s proposed NorthMet Project, calculations for the proposed Twin Metals operations (including pre-feasibility projections) show that its 99% waste would be equivalent to the footprint of 738 football fields with a height equal to the IDS Center. At most, Twin Metals may get 50% of this waste underground to pollute unseen into the Kawishiwi Watershed. Teck American holds leases on the largest Duluth Complex deposit, the Mesaba (one billion tons, 99% waste). Obliteration.

And, crucially, by inaccurately placing the NorthMet Mine on the Iron Range, PolyMet’s entire SDEIS can be (and is) skewed and littered with false assumptions. Imagine anyone, let alone a cooperating government agency, comparing an iron mine in Bovey to the proposed NorthMet Mine in the Duluth Complex 65 miles away, and then having the audacity to say that the geologic and hydrogeologic settings are “relatively similar.” It is not even in the same geological formation.

A billion years of difference, literally. The Duluth Complex formed by the Midcontinent Rift.

Lake country of the Arrowhead is not “northern Minnesota’s mining range”

I have suspected for quite some time there was a movement afoot to claim the entire Arrowhead of Minnesota for the Iron Range. Beginning when I innocently Googled “Iron Range” and discovered to my surprise that on Wikipedia it extended to the Canadian border. I guess someone figured it was a free site so hey, why not? Let’s stake our claim, and I quote, “It has been suggested that Arrowhead Region be merged into this [Iron Range] article [on Wikipedia].”

The Wikipedia description got even foxier, or blatant, depending on one’s view. ‘The Iron Range is an informal and unofficially designated region that makes up the northeastern section of Minnesota in the United States. It is a region with multiple distinct bands of iron ore. It’s colloquially known through the rest of Minnesota as “da Range.” The far eastern area, containing the Duluth Complex along the shore of Lake Superior, and the far northern area along the Canadian border of the region, are not associated with iron ore mining. Due to its shape, the area is collectively referred to as the Arrowhead region of the state. … The area consists of seven counties: Aitkin, Carlton, Cook, Itasca, Koochiching, Lake, and St. Louis.

At first, it was ludicrous and rather amusing. I wondered whom the Iron Range prankster was playing such tricks. Someone associated with the Mesabi Daily News? Editor Bill Hanna? Hanna once wrote, referring to legitimate concerns about Glencore, “But such a major project [PolyMet] on the Iron Range’s rich NorthMet complex, which stretches about 150 miles from Duluth to the Canadian border ... would not be anywhere near possible without such a huge investment from outside the area.” There you have it, “150 miles from Duluth to the Canadian border;” it must be the inspiration for Wikipedia. Although, Hanna wrote “NorthMet complex,” perhaps he was a tad confused, or claiming the entire area for PolyMet.

The ‘plot’ thickens, or should I say expands. “Twin Metals Minnesota Iron Range.” No kidding, that is the title of the 2012 Twin Metals map. Its website states: “Twin Metals Minnesota has approximately 32,000 acres of property interests – leased, permitted or owned – on the northern edge of Minnesota’s Iron Range.” The latest? In its Mid-Prefeasibility Study, Twin Metals has changed the name of its map to “Twin Metals Minnesota, Part of Northern Minnesota’s Mining Range.” Where will it end; how much of the Arrowhead’s lake country will they attempt to claim if we allow them? Will they go after the BWCAW next, using “critical and strategic metals” propaganda to mine it? Our waters are critical and strategic!

And then along comes Tom Rukavina, the former Iron Range state representative, apparently trying to seal the deal at PolyMet’s SDEIS hearing in St. Paul. Rukavina huffed and puffed, shaking a paper bag in which to collect keys, cell phones, and iPads from opposing audience members, “This is our culture. This is not the Tourist Range. This is not the Wilderness Range. It’s the Iron Range,” he proclaimed. “No mines, no Range. Maybe that’s what those people want. But if they want to make the Range into a wilderness, we are not going down without a fight.”

Huh? What people? There’s no way to turn the Iron Range into a wilderness; I don’t want to fight you for da Range. It’s yours. Just please, for the sake of all of our children and grandchildren, make those taconite mines meet state standards, especially standards for mercury and sulfate!

But you do get around – are you the guy who inspired regulators at the DNR to claim that PolyMet’s NorthMet Mine would be on the Iron Range? Or perhaps it was Jon Cherry, PolyMet’s CEO? When referring to PolyMet’s SDEIS he was quoted as saying, “We understand people may not agree with us. But we at least want everyone working off the same set of facts.” Would that be PolyMet’s version of fact?

PolyMet poised to begin the taking of our lake country

Once the standards are set for PolyMet, they are set for every sulfide mine to follow. Any mining corporation that claims it can meet those standards (and standards are often deliberately left out of permits) would likely not be denied. After all, PolyMet is claiming it will treat mind-boggling amounts of heavily polluted wastewater for 500 years or “as long as necessary” and our agencies are acting as if that is sane.

Nor would any sulfide mines be shut down when they do pollute. Taconite mines are not shut done, operating with variances or expired permits. And Twin Metals would not end operations with an underground mine; the mineral resources in the area closest to the BWCAW (one mile) would require an open pit. (Copper-Nickel Study)

If we do not protest now, loudly, to end this charade we will never be able to recoup our losses. These companies do not care about us. This decision is not about one mine; it is a decision about whether or not to have another mining district – a copper sulfide district – that would displace our lake lands and bring centuries of pollution and irreparable damage to our waters, in two major watersheds.

Minnesota’s waters are irreplaceable; the risks of sulfide mining incalculable

I always believed in the US Forest Service motto: Caring for the land and serving people.

I always believed in the mission of the DNR: “DNR protects the state’s natural heritage by conserving the diversity of natural lands, waters, and fish and wildlife that provide the foundation for Minnesota’s recreational and natural resource-based economy (M.S. 84, M.S. 97A).”

But changing an ecosystem; by allowing a sulfide-mining district – with its massive excavations and toxic waste – to destroy or permanently pollute our unique diversity of natural lands and waters is not protection. Nor is it “providing other economic opportunities in a manner consistent with sound natural resource conservation and management principles.” (DNR)

At the core of sound natural resource conservation and management is the ability to recognize when the risks are too great. The immense amounts of coal-fired electricity used by this industry are reason enough to say “no.” PolyMet alone would emit 707,342 metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year. (Mining Truth)

Sulfide mining sycophant

During the House Committee hearing Rep. Dill vehemently declared that the people of Minnesota do not have a say in financial assurance – viable or not – because Minnesota’s “mineral resources do not belong to Minnesotans, they belong to a group of people.” In PolyMet’s case, that translates as Glencore. Well, our waters belong to us! Our Superior National Forest belongs to us! And Minnesota is our State! Our home.

Minnesotans need to get informed. Comment on PolyMet’s SDEIS. The threat to our incomparable Land of 10,000 Lakes is no joke. It is real. It is a catastrophic threat.

The Duluth Complex is not the Iron Range. It is a formation under our Lake Country and it can stay there, supporting Minnesota’s greatest wealth. Our lakes, rivers, streams, and wetlands are more valuable than disseminated metals. This is the Lake Country of the Arrowhead. Not the Iron Range.

Mr. Rukavina, you keep the Iron Range (start regulating it) and we’ll keep the Lake Country. This is our culture, Minnesota’s culture. This is not Glencore Xstrata’s Range or Duluth Metals Range or Antofagasta’s Range. Or Teck Resources or Rio Tinto’s Range. And it’s not the Iron Range. It’s the Lake Country of the Arrowhead of Minnesota. No clean lakes, no Lake Country. Maybe that’s what those people want. But if they want to make our Lake Country into a Copper Range, our forested lake lands into a toxic waste-piled pitscape, and our waterways into a sewer system for sulfide mining; think again. We are not going down without a fight!

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Ms. Tome, Pro-mining

Ms. Tome,

“Insults are arguments employed by those who are in the wrong.” –Jean Jacques Rousseau

Pro-mining proponents, evidently including you, want to claim the Duluth Complex as part of the Iron Range. It is not, and it is time to make the distinction before it is too late for those of us who care about the waters of the Arrowhead.

One could just as easily say that the taconite tax credit is payment for polluting our waters since every operating taconite mine is doing so, or operating under a variance, which is basically a license to pollute.

When you publicly oppose sulfide-mining, I will happily give you my “tax credit” to apply toward your property taxes for your home on the Vermilion Range, which just like my home is not in the Duluth Complex. Nor is the closed Soudan Mine, or the closed Pioneer Mine, or the still-operating Northshore Mine, or even Section 30. All are iron or taconite mines. Did you forget?

The Duluth Complex is a copper-nickel sulfide ore body. No one would be mining iron or taconite. The Duluth Complex is not the Vermilion or the Mesabi Iron Range. Geologically there is nearly a billion years of difference between the Iron Range and the Duluth Complex. The same is true of the Gunflint Range. A billion years of difference, and an entirely different formation. The Biwabik Iron Formation was bisected by intrusions of the Mesoproterozoic Duluth Complex. I suggest you research the Midcontinent Rift.  

As for mining the so-called Gunflint Range in Minnesota, the Paulson ‘Mine’ opened in 1888; shipped one car-load of ore; closed in 1893. 

The Iron Range is not the Arrowhead, only a part of it. The Superior National Forest and our waters are a bigger part, the Rainy River Watershed does run all the way to the Canadian border, and the Lake Superior Watershed feeds the Great Lake that contains 10% of all the earth’s fresh surface water.

The “Tribal Agency Position Supporting Materials, Appendix C,” in PolyMet’s SDEIS, listed their concern about the location descriptions used in the DEIS: “Map is misleading. The area labeled Mesabi Iron Range/Historic mining district encompasses areas that have never been mined and are outside the geologic formations where iron mines have operated.”

It is exactly my point.

If readers have any doubts about where Minnesota is headed: http://mcc.mn.gov/explore.html