Sulfide mining hearings a lot of talk—and that’s a good thing


Over the last three days, I attended three hearings on sulfide mining and SF2349, a bill that would have strengthened Minnesota’s “damage deposit” regulations on sulfide mining operations. After nearly 12 hours of testimony from the DNR, industry representatives, citizens, environmental groups and elected officials, Sen. Carlson (D-Eagan) withdrew his bill without any recorded vote.

This may seem like a defeat for environmental groups that have pushed for this bill for the last two sessions. However, the fact that a group of elected officials finally heard a perspective on sulfide mining that was not from an industry group or a supportive legislator was a victory in and of itself.

Three things we know for sure:

1) This debate over mining is ridiculously polarized.

Of course, you say. This is a hot-button issue (mining) near a hot-button issue (the Boundary Waters Canoe Area). But the framing of this issue by legislators and the media make it impossible to have a reasoned debate about the extent of regulations that should apply to this industry. Consider this example, yesterday’s “Question of the Day” on MPR — “In tough economic times, should environmental protection take a back seat to job creation?”  MPR received 120 comments on this question, many arguing that this forced choice was inaccurate and unhelpful. Based on all of these comments, MPR aired a five-minute interview with a Professor of Economics at St. Scholastica College in Duluth — who then argued that this forced choice exists and predictably took the side of economic development. Shocking, I know.

It is exactly this kind of frame that makes this debate so polarizing. Not only is this dichotomy a false one, but it shortchanges the real deliberation required when economic development and environmental protection do conflict. It short circuits more productive questions about what kinds of economic development we should promote, what natural resources we know we never want to trade for economic gain, etc.

Mining industry advocates trade in this dichotomy because it suits their interests. The media love it because controversy and easy distinctions fit their preferred “pro/con” model of opinion. If we are ever going to actually have a real conversation about how to develop a sustainable economy in all parts of Minnesota, we need better frames.

2) Minnesota cannot continue to act as though the EPA doesn’t exist or is irrelevant.

A big chunk of these hearings were about the EPA’s highly critical comments on the PolyMet Draft Environmental Impact Statement. Unfortunately, the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers both declined invitations to appear before the committee, with some speculating that political pressure may have discouraged their testimony.

While Sen. Satveer Chaudhary’s conclusion seemed designed to offer something to folks for and against the bill, he declared quite clearly that he was convinced that the DNR knew in Fall 2009 that the Draft EIS was not up to federal standards, and pushed forward with it anyway. This is important both for environmental advocates and for those who want to see this mine built as quickly as possible. DNR’s failure to address the EPA’s concerns will only delay the environmental review process further.

3) Our public input process is broken and needs to be fixed.

At one point yesterday during the testimony of Steve Colvin from the Minnesota DNR, Sen. Ellen Anderson asked if it was true that the public information sessions for the PolyMet DEIS really didn’t allow people to speak about the project. He stated that this was going to be the new policy going forward, to present information to the public and allow them to present their concerns to stenographers. He also noted there was nothing in statute that required an open hearing where members of the public would be allowed to speak for or against a proposal, just a public information session.

Both Sen. Anderson and Sen. Scott Dibble were concerned with this answer. Both noted, correctly, that people feel that it is important for the public to be allowed to speak, and that there’s value for elected officials in hearing the concerns of their constituents. Additionally, Sen. Dibble noted that this might cut down on the number of duplicative comments submitted to regulatory agencies, since if someone hears another person giving voice to their concerns, they wouldn’t feel the need to add their comment, knowing that it will already be addressed.

Sens. Anderson and Dibble seemed to hint that legislation might be forthcoming to address this. Some of the frustration of PolyMet opponents springs from the fact that these hearings were the first open hearings where opponents were allowed to speak.

This process is frustrating for everyone, and these hearings demonstrated that conclusively. Senators wanted to know what the timeline for this project is, and the DNR’s Colvin flatly refused to give an answer. But one thing is absolutely clear, and should be to both mining proponents and opponents — attempts to end-run this process and avoid public input will only drag it out further.

For more information about these hearings see:
#sulfidesenate twitterstream of the hearings