Reverse osmosis is not the solution to pollution; it is the result


Editors Note: This article is being republished with permission from The Duluth Reader.


The Duluth News Tribune (DNT) letter to the editor, Jan. 23, “Solutions promote jobs, ‘never’ produces wasteland,” compared the Bingham Canyon Mine in semi-arid Utah to PolyMet in water-intensive Minnesota.

The writer, Bill Campbell, stated that PolyMet was a “solutions-driven company,” likening it to Rio Tinto/Kennecott, claiming Kennecott Utah Copper had “offered” to use reverse osmosis as a “solution” to the massive contamination at its Bingham Canyon Mine. He went on, “The result was marketable potable water, which was sold to downstream communities.” He neglected to mention that the affected residents of Salt Lake Valley, whose water was contaminated and undrinkable, were the very same communities the treated water was being sold to. The mining company polluted their water, and then the people got to buy it back. What a deal.

Not only did Campbell choose Bingham Canyon to champion PolyMet and its proposed reverse osmosis, he also ridiculed use of “never, not ever, not anywhere” when defining metallic sulfide mines and water pollution. Ironically, Bingham Canyon is without doubt one of the world’s worst water-polluting copper mines.

The DNT also published a ‘companion’ letter, Jan. 23, “Reader’s view: Northland hunters support mining projects,” by Gerald Tyler. Neither Campbell nor Tyler, both from Ely, gave any examples of sulfide mines that had not polluted a water rich environment such as ours, not even the oft-misused Flambeau Mine. Flambeau was no NorthMet. Flambeau mined 1,000 tons of ore per day. (Wisconsin DNR) PolyMet would mine 32,000 tons of ore per day (eventually 90,000-100,000 tons per day) at 99% waste. Flambeau’s pit was only 32 acres, ore so localized it was shipped to Canada and processed there, no tailings basin at the mine site; and still Flambeau polluted groundwater and Stream C, now listed as an impaired water. Stream C flows into the Flambeau River.

Campbell and Tyler were both responding to the DNT commentary, Jan. 10, “Sportsman’s view: Sportsmen not buying PolyMet’s sulfide mining whitewashing,” by David Lien. Lien had questioned a PolyMet board member’s whitewashing of PolyMet’s NorthMet Project; his failure to mention acid-mine drainage, a West pit that would eventually overflow, no upfront “escape-proof” financial assurance, the incompleteness of PolyMet’s SDEIS, and the water-polluting track record of sulfide mining.

 Tyler labeled Lien’s valid concerns about water pollution, “inane consequences.”

 For the record, I tried to respond to Campbell’s letter by pointing out the fallacies in his Bingham Canyon analogy; however, the DNT declined to address what Campbell referred to as “solutions” at Bingham Canyon, or what Tyler considered the “inane consequences” of extracting copper from sulfide ores in Minnesota’s lake country.

To be or not to be (a Superfund site), that was the question

It took the threat of being placed on the EPA National Priority List as a Superfund site and a lawsuit by the state of Utah to get Rio Tinto/Kennecott to remediate the vast contamination at Bingham Canyon. Jon Cherry, now President, CEO, and Director of PolyMet, was project engineer/manager for Kennecott Utah Copper’s subsequent mine remediation. Kennecott was essentially forced to build a water treatment plant. It was not “offered,” and it was no “solution.” It was a way to cope.

There are 72 square miles of contamination plumes. “There are two groundwater plumes that have two distinct contamination sources and are not connected. The Zone A plume, managed by Kennecott, contains elevated metals, sulfate and total dissolved solids (and low pH) in excess of the State of Utah drinking water standards. The Zone B plume, managed by Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District (as part of a joint project addressing a Natural Resource damage claim filed by Utah), contains elevated levels of sulfate and total dissolved solids in excess of the State of Utah drinking water standards. … The long-term action is to contain groundwater contamination. A Record of Decision (ROD) was signed in 2000. Cleanup and treatment designs have been conducted in coordination with a Natural Resource Damage Settlement. A water treatment plant began operation in the spring of 2006.” (EPA)

The operative word is “contain.” Affected Salt Lake Valley residents will likely never be able to drink their water without treating it for sulfates, metals, and other contaminants. Is that what we want for the waters of northeastern Minnesota? PolyMet is telling us we must accept its pollution with no end date in sight, and PolyMet will do us the favor of treating it. Sound familiar?

At Bingham Canyon the treatment plant only treats part of the groundwater contamination; and the disposal of the reject concentrate is a major environmental issue, largely due to selenium. High levels of selenium are toxic to wildlife, particularly to waterfowl. The US Fish and Wildlife Service took legal action against Kennecott in 2008 for polluting the Great Salt Lake and wetlands with selenium, copper, arsenic, lead, zinc and cadmium. PolyMet’s DEIS/SDEIS indicated that selenium, copper, arsenic, lead, zinc, cadmium, aluminum, cobalt, nickel, manganese, and antimony would either exceed Minnesota water quality standards or “be above existing conditions.”

It is imperative that we question “whitewashing”

By definition Bingham Canyon Mine is a wasteland, by a Google Earth measurement encompassing more than 12 square miles; add another 14 square miles of tailings impoundment. Add a 72 square mile contamination plume. The damage caused is hardly comparable to “a road built, an automobile manufactured, a book published, a farm operated or a dam constructed,” as Campbell claimed in his DNT letter.

And any “whitewashing” of sulfide mining by any PolyMet board member should always be questioned. Whitewashing took on a whole new meaning at Bingham Canyon.

At Bingham Canyon the deadly potential for a tailings basin failure (seismic) was concealed from the public, a conspiracy of silence and secrecy from 1988 until 2008 when an investigative reporter exposed the cover-up. Beginning with Kennecott and continuing with Rio Tinto/Kennecott Utah Copper, including throughout the 12 years Cherry, a licensed professional engineer, was reportedly employed at Bingham Canyon. How much Cherry was aware of is unknown.

Not only did Kennecott’s management not tell residents they were in danger, Rio Tinto/Kennecott had a “risk assessment” done in 1992 that calculated possible fatalities including those of children, counting how many attended each school and assigning a dollar amount to each child; the “approximate value placed on loss of life by Utah courts.”

In a 1997 memo, Ray D. Gardner, Kennecott’s chief legal officer wrote: “Although the record in this matter is not as egregious, it nevertheless is analogous to the Pinto cases [Ford Motor Company’s cover-up], and should be duly considered and addressed by Kennecott’s existent management.” There was still no public announcement. Not until 2008, when the Salt Lake Tribune broke the story.

Yet Campbell compared Bingham Canyon to a “solutions-driven” PolyMet, implying it is the reason we must believe whatever we are told about PolyMet.

Non-degradation of groundwater in Minnesota

Groundwater in Minnesota is a protected public resource; it is not the property of any mining company. These are our waters, not PolyMet’s, not Glencore’s.

Minnesota Statute does not allow degradation of groundwater. By law, the highest priority use of groundwater is for potable (drinkable) water. The groundwater aquifer beneath the LTV tailings basin is already contaminated. (Barr) No one knows just how badly. The contamination plume reaches private wells. By law, the state should be determining the extent of the damage and cleaning up the site, not promoting the addition of new pollution from PolyMet’s NorthMet Project.

Minnesota Administrative Rules 7060.0100 PURPOSE.

It is the purpose of this chapter to preserve and protect the underground waters of the state by preventing any new pollution and abating existing pollution. … “

7060.0200 POLICY.

It is the policy of the agency to consider the actual or potential use of the underground waters for potable water supply as constituting the highest priority use and as such to provide maximum protection to all underground waters. … For the conservation of underground water supplies for present and future generations and prevention of possible health hazards, it is necessary and proper that the agency employ a nondegradation policy to prevent pollution of the underground waters of the state. …


The waters of the state are classified according to their highest priority use, which for underground waters of suitable natural quality is their use now or in the future as a source of drinking, culinary, or food processing water.”

In 2010, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) had the opportunity to restore groundwater at the LTV/PolyMet plant site. The Center for Biological Diversity, Save Lake Superior Association, and the Indigenous Environmental Network had filed “an intent to sue” against Cliffs Erie (Cliffs Natural Resources) for hundreds of water quality violations at its LTV and Dunka sites, equating to millions of dollars in fines. Biological Diversity’s “intent to sue” listed 309 violations of the permit limits (five years of violations). Multiplying just the 309 violations by the maximum fine allowed, $37,500 per violation per day, the total maximum penalty – had Cliffs been subjected to fines – would be approximately $12 million. If the calculations also included additional amounts for many of those violations that were monthly, thus multiplied by 30, the total maximum penalty would be off the charts. For example, one violation at $37,500 per day for 30 days would be an additional maximum penalty of $1,125,000 added to the $12 million total.

Instead, the MPCA intervened and wrote a consent decree for $58,000; Cliffs made some modifications, a study was done resulting in recommendations, Cliffs asked for a variance, and the MPCA complied. No further plan or action exists except (at Dunka) monitoring the continuing illegal pollution discharging into Unnamed Creek and other creeks that flow into the Kawishiwi River, a drinking water source by state rule.

The lawsuit would have gone a long way toward “abating existing pollution.” Now the state’s answer is to cover up existing pollution with PolyMet’s “new pollution.” Public groundwater? Ignored in favor of PolyMet. Regulatory capture.

Bingham Canyon or PolyMet reverse osmosis is damage control

Mining engineers at Bingham Canyon are fond of saying they have to deal with “legacy” contamination. All mining contamination is legacy contamination at some point in time. Hindsight. Minnesota would be no exception.

The proposed PolyMet Project will pollute (DEIS/SDEIS), pollutants seeping and flowing into our waters. A leaking, unlined tailings basin. Waste rock piles leaching acid and metals. Lined disposal for hydrometallurgical reactive residue, until the liners fail and seepage infiltrates our groundwater. Discharges will exceed legal limits or be significantly elevated for metals and sulfate. Faults, fractures, and exploratory boreholes are contamination conduits to our aquifers. At the end of operations we will be left with a mine pit full of toxic water that will eventually overflow. Reverse osmosis would be the direct result of PolyMet’s pollution production.

We are agreeing to let PolyMet pollute our waters. There is no guarantee of anything else.

The wastewater treatment facility at the mine site would not begin using reverse osmosis until closure, maybe. Water at the plant site would not be treated but continually recycled (closed loop) until it is so contaminated it cannot be used. Then what? Another Minntac? If reverse osmosis works on such a scale, why is the taconite industry not using it? There are no plans in PolyMet’s SDEIS for what to do when reverse osmosis fails, or costs too much. Mesabi Nugget has already used the “it costs too much” ploy to get its variance, its license to pollute.

PolyMet’s SDEIS does not account for mining expansion, for processing increases from 32,000 tons per day to 90,000-100,000 tons per day. Current calculations vastly underestimated the amount of pollution that would ultimately be generated. Any collection and treatment systems put in place would be inadequate at full production. At ‘full pollution.’

PolyMet is the snowplow, and now Twin Metals is the car behind the plow

Once a permit is issued, no other sulfide mine would be refused. Industry strategy is to get PolyMet permitted and then expand, which includes operating the existing LTV/PolyMet plant at full capacity. Teck Cominco is adjacent to PolyMet. In 2003, northeastern Minnesota legislators were pushing for $265 million in federal funds to set Teck up at the LTV plant. Then PolyMet got it for the price of scrap. Now Twin Metals (Antofagasta) has its eye on the LTV plant for processing. When all Duluth Complex deposits are merged, Minnesota will have our very own contaminating ‘Bingham Canyon’ pit; and the obliteration of thousands of acres of high quality wetlands, streams, lakes and forests in both the Lake Superior and Rainy River Watersheds.

Underground mine or open pit makes little difference when it comes to aquifer contamination, especially when proposed sulfide mines would be twice as deep as taconite mines. On the Spruce Road, near the Kawishiwi River, the metals resource in the first 1,000 feet is equal to that below 1,000 feet – at the INCO site proposed for an open pit mine in the 1970’s – and a quarter mile from the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Does anyone seriously think Twin Metals will leave half its mineral resource behind?

Who operates, maintains, and pays for water treatment for unending centuries? What good will treatment do when there is the inevitable flood or storm event and a treatment plant cannot handle the load; when a plant shuts down due to loss of power, or due to filters plugging, or shuts down in winter, or shuts down due to bankruptcy as Cliffs Natural Resources recently declared in Canada? (And LTV did with Dunka). What happens if Cliffs goes bankrupt in Minnesota? Who is responsible for contamination at the LTV plant, Dunka, Northshore, and Milepost 7? What happens when a corporation goes to court to avoid paying its clean-up costs, as BP did last year over the Gulf oil spill? Upheld, or not?

And what happens when there is a catastrophic dam failure such as Mount Polley (instability of glacial till), when no amount of ‘cleaning up’ will ever fix it? Hibtac already had a 1,000-foot crack in its tailings dam; Milepost 7 is an accident waiting to happen, 600 vertical feet above Lake Superior, a 1,000-foot break in its dam would result in a 28-foot high wall of water and mining slimes moving down the Beaver River Valley at more than 20 miles per hour to Lake Superior. (EQC) And PolyMet? Its tailings basin is already so unstable it would have to be reinforced. (DEIS) How long would that last?

A pollution-driven mine

Using the word, “never,” did not produce a wasteland; Kennecott produced one. Bingham Canyon’s water treatment plant was not a solution that promoted “jobs, communities, schools and families” – it was a mechanism that kept families from drinking poisoned water.

PolyMet is a pollution-driven mine. We know in advance that PolyMet would pollute our waters. Water treatment would be for “perpetuity,” the original wording in its Preliminary Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement before redaction. Those who say it was changed to “hundreds” of years can remember there is no end date, and that is the definition of perpetual.

Residents of Salt Lake Valley had no choice; their water was undrinkable. We do have a choice. Not to choose perpetual pollution in the first place.