For most Minnesotans, the northern part of the state means fishing, camping, hunting, canoeing and snowmobiling. Tens of thousands of Minnesotans are employed providing these outdoor opportunities.
Iron ore mining and forestry have also long been a part of Northern Minnesota and while significant conflicts have occurred between these industries and outdoor recreation, a relative balance has been achieved.
This balance may soon end. Several companies have applied for permits to mine other metals in Superior National Forest. Polymet’s is the furthest along in the permitting process. What’s most troubling is that its strategic partner and exclusive marketer for the metals it will mine (for at least the first five years of operation) is multinational mining giant Glencore.
The Swiss-based mining and commodities corporation has a legacy of human rights violations, massive environmental contamination, child labor atrocities, and leveraging political instability to maximize profits.
To punctuate that history, Glencore has just hired Tony Hayward, the BP CEO who presided over the Gulf Oil Spill, as its new environment and safety expert.
Glencore now has its sights set on northern Minnesota.
Sulfide Mining, a History of Polluted Water
Sulfide mining, the process used to extract the non-iron metals from the ore, has polluted Minnesota’s waterways and caused other environmental damage. No matter how much mine executives try to spin the idea that new mining technologies’ can limit sulfide’s environmental impact, how they’ve learned their lessons, or how they will restore the site to its natural state, history shows sulfide leaves a lasting negative legacy.
Polymet/Glencore is most likely to drag out in court any efforts by the state or federal government to make them stop polluting the surrounding lakes, rivers and streams. When the mine is no longer profitable, it will be abandoned, leaving the state and Minnesota taxpayers with the impossible task of cleaning up the mess. And make no mistake, the mess will be massive and toxic. Sulfide pollution will have run off in both directions polluting the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness to the north and Lake Superior to the south and east.
Polymet and Glencore are saying if they’re required to put up a bond or get adequate insurance to cover the real cost of cleanup or restoration costs, it’s a deal breaker. They can’t afford it. If a huge multinational mining company can’t afford to clean up its mess, how will Minnesota taxpayers be able to afford it when they leave?
Human Rights Abuses
European NGOs have target Glencore’s human rights and pollution violations for further investigation. Glencore’s worker exploitations and anti-environmental actions in Colombia earned it The Public Eye Award, given out during the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos.
This “counterpoint to the annual [economic] meeting” aims to show the corporate world that social and environmental misdeeds have consequences, according to Public Eye’s website. “Glencore has no scruples when it comes to mining raw materials,” the organization said when giving out the award in 2008.
Swiss NGO, Bread for All, reports that Glencore’s mining operation at Katanga in Congo often has no safety measures. Most notably, miners aren’t protected from uranium radiation and often crawl into hand-excavated cavities which frequently cave in following days of rain.
Also in Congo, Bread for All reports Glencore uses intermediaries to buy minerals from so-called “artisanal mines” which employ about 30,000 children who are particularly valuable to the operation because their smaller sizes allow them to crawl into the smallest of crevices to extract minerals.
Legacy of Massive Environmental Contamination
The second chapter of Glencore’s story is its abysmal environmental record. Glencore’s environmental practices have been described to be “In the dark ages” when compared with its rivals.
Glencore’s subsidiary, Mopani Copper Mines (MCM) in Zambia has ignored environmental regulations and routinely has sulfur dioxide emissions over seventy times the legal limit.
Glencore’s history of environmental contamination has global investors wary.
Connecting the Dots
It’s tough to see how Mining Minnesota Executive Director Frank Ongarro is lauding Glencore’s investment in PolyMet as a “positive thing” and heaping praise on its ever increasing share ownership.
A simple Google search shows Glencore has the size and business practices to make enormous sums of money, but few of these online sources — other than Glencore’s own website — say anything positive about how the company amasses its wealth.
According to PolyMet Executive Vice President Brad Moore, Glencore is simply a minor player, a small investor, a bit part in the PolyMet story.
Let’s be clear though, Glencore has no track record of just throwing a few million into a project and then stepping back to let others run it. Glencore’s own website reveals that it eventually ends up owning over 75 percent of all of its initial mining investments, with only one exception, an aluminum plant in Russia.
In 2007, Glencore bought a 25 percent share of Nikanor, a mining company which was trying to revive mines next to the Katanga mines in Congo. The deal gave Glencore exclusive rights to all of Nikanor’s output, similar to the deal it cut with PolyMet.
Fast forward six months, and Katanga merged with Nikanor, but was quickly running out of money. Desperate for cash, Katanga eventually gave sole control of its mine operations to Glencore. Katanga agreed to issue more than a billion new shares, giving Glencore a 74 percent stake. Glencore now runs Katanga.
It’s worth noting that Polymet, a company venturing into new mining territory with little cash on hand, is partnering with a giant possessing “detailed knowledge of almost all the major mine development opportunities around the world,” according to a Duluth tv news station quoting Polyment’s CEO. Given the Swiss mining giant’s track record, it’s easy to see who could eventually own and control Polymet’s Northern Minnesota mining opperation: Glencore.
Frank Moe is a Conservation Minnesota Voter Center Board Member.