Tough times for Minnesota mines

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by Sarah Halloran | June 8th, 2009 • As two stories from MPR confirm, mining in Northern Minnesota is facing some serious problems. Layoffs and scheduled shutdowns continue to disrupt operations while plans for new, potentially dangerous types of mining are advanced. Minntac, a company that mines ore used in steel manufacturing, has announced losses of $439 million dollars in the first three months of 2009, and has recently brought 300 people back to work after a scheduled shutdown in May, though they will be sent home again in late June. And Minntac is not alone, as its competitors in Minnesota have all announced layoffs or shutdowns as well.

Hindsight is the official blog of Minnesota 2020. Hindsight gives the run down on the news that jumps out at us on the issues that matter. Often times these stories show us how much further we need to go to have the progressive policy realized in Minnesota.

There are plans being laid for a major expansion of Minnesota’s mining industry that could bring needed revenue and jobs to the region, but these projects may have unintended consequences.

PolyMet Corporation is formulating plans to mine for copper and nickel near the St. Louis River, between Lake Superior and the Boundary Waters, but there are serious environmental concerns that could damage the area in the long-term. Copper-nickel mining exposes sulfuric rocks to the air, which can leech toxic metals and acids into the surrounding area. Sulfates released by the mining can also lead to a form of mercury poisoning in the river, which is harmful to the fish, as well as the people and animals that consume them. This would be extremely problematic, as the St. Louis River is the nursery for many fish that eventually make their way into Lake Superior. A similar mine in Wisconsin has maintained the environmental standards set forth in its original plans, but a 2006 study on pollutants from sulfide mining painted a darker picture:

“In nearly every case where we had mines in close proximity to surface water and ground water, we saw that there was almost a 90 percent, if not greater, probability that the predicted water quality wasn’t actually what we saw.”

Of 25 mines studied, over three-quarters of them violated water-quality standards, and if these mining operations fail, the state is stuck with the cleanup bill. When these mines close, they still require considerable maintenance so that toxic chemicals don’t seep into the surrounding environment.

The author of the report, Jim Kuipers, a mining consultant based in Montana, was also quoted as saying:

“You know, you may have the perfect ore deposit sitting next to the last place in the planet you really want to mine. Then you really don’t have a situation where I’m going to suggest you can do it right.”

Clearly, the expansion of the mining industry has the opportunity to provide jobs to those who have lost them in the last 12 months, but careful planning and oversight are crucial to ensuring that we protect our natural resources and a healthy environment for the future.

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