COMMUNITY VOICES | A war on women: In Minnesota, the first victims of sulfide mining would be their children


This past summer Texas bluebonnets were still blooming when Senator Wendy Davis stood and spoke for nearly eleven hours to stop a bill predominantly supported by male senators. Men telling women they had no right to health care. No right to make reproductive decisions for themselves. Men would decide for them. “A war on women,” it has been called.

I could not help but wonder how many legislators nationwide, on both sides of the political aisle, hypocritically promote a male-dominated industry that deprives women worldwide of rights. No right to clean air. No right to clean water. No right to fish they can eat without contaminating the fetus in their womb. No right to a healthy child.

Until the mining industry proves it has changed, it is unequivocally a war on women and their children. Women, and men, mothers and fathers need to stand and be heard. Demand the right of every woman to have an undamaged child. Including in Minnesota.

Alarm sounding for years

In 2005, the “Public Health and Economic Consequences of Methyl Mercury Toxicity to the Developing Brain,” evaluated the impact of methyl mercury – in strictly economic terms. The authors analyzed the numbers of children with cord blood mercury levels above that associated with loss of IQ and methyl mercury toxicity attributable to U.S. industry, particularly power plant emissions.

Researchers found, “The resulting loss of intelligence causes diminished economic productivity that persists over the entire lifetime of these children. … This significant toll threatens the economic health and security of the United States and should be considered in the debate on mercury pollution controls. … Moreover, the blood–brain barrier is not fully developed until after the first year of life, and methyl mercury can cross this incomplete barrier (Rodier 1995).”

In 2011, the Minnesota Department of Health’s (MDH) study, “Mercury in Newborns in the Lake Superior Basin,” found 10% of newborns tested in the Lake Superior Basin of Minnesota had toxic levels of mercury in their blood, likely from pregnant mothers eating mercury-laden fish. Methyl mercury.

After the alarming MDH study, did our agencies hold any Minnesota industry in any way accountable for contaminating our waters? Did any industry scramble to fix its toxic releases to help protect Minnesota’s children? No. Industry claims it is not “economically feasible” or “cost effective.” Women are told they should make better decisions about the fish they eat, ironically told they can “choose.”

Did our legislative leaders demand industry clean up and meet standards? Hardly. Instead Minnesota conveniently backed out of a million dollar TMDL (Total Maximum Daily Load) mercury study of the St. Louis River, designed to start repairing our waters and protecting our children. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency reneged; at the same time the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce was busy trying to decimate the water standard for sulfates, is still trying. Governor Dayton and the Legislature have already weakened Minnesota’s permitting process and want to weaken it further. Dayton called for abolishing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA had the audacity to call the PolyMet DEIS what it was, a failure. Now, according to Dayton the EPA is taking too long; and Dayton suggested it does not “have any real motivation to make the changes necessary to allow us to move forward and create jobs.” Motivation? Jobs at any cost?

Industry must fully meet standards, nothing less. That is the law. And standards must protect our children.

Yet the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Division of Land and Minerals, “Mercury and Mining in Minnesota Report,” stated, “Cost-benefit analyses attempt to weigh the costs of implementing control measures against the benefit in terms of environmental and public health.”

The Land and Minerals Report then continued, referencing a policy study from right-wing pro-business think tank American Enterprise Institute; a policy study that by determining control costs per child had essentially put a dollar amount on each affected child’s head ($10,000), and implied controls would not be worth it. Qualifying, “The health effects are not changes in the health of identifiable children but are small differences in the risk that all children face.”

How much is your child’s health and intellect worth to you?

Record speaks for itself

In northeastern Minnesota water wells near taconite mining sites are contaminated with manganese, a neurotoxin. Surface waters are contaminated with the neurotoxin mercury – from taconite plants and the coal-fired electrical plants that power them, as well as instate and outstate atmospheric deposition. Waters are contaminated with sulfates, in Minnesota’s Lake Superior Basin primarily from taconite mining and wastewater treatment plants. Sulfates and mercury are the deadly duo in the formation of methyl mercury, the toxic form of mercury in our fish.

Since 2004 all modern taconite mines have violations and fines, not adherence. The long closed Dunka Mine may have qualified as a Superfund site. Instead it was given variances allowing it to be non-compliant for decades; releasing high levels of sulfates and heavy metals, particularly nickel, to our waters. Nickel is a genotoxin, carcinogen and suspected mutagen. Meaning damage can be inherited.

Dunka, on the edge of the Duluth Complex, is still not meeting standards nearly twenty years after closure, even with treatment systems.

Our waters are critical and strategic. Sulfide mining’s toxic 99% waste and its astronomical use of coal-fired electrical power – plus the massive water usage by both of these industries – spells folly. Sulfide mining is an industry without success stories. Antofagasta contaminated waters in arid regions of Chile.

Minnesota has enough trouble.

Neurotoxins and our children

In 2007, Minnesota was statistically the state with the highest rate of autism in the nation. A subsequent study in 2009 (DeSoto) showed a correlation between the rate of autism in Minnesota school districts and the districts proximity to Superfund sites.

Four months ago (June 18, 2013), the Harvard School of Public Health released the first national study to find that perinatal exposures to diesel particulates, mercury, lead, manganese, methylene chloride, nickel, and over-all metals “were significantly associated with ASD [autism spectrum disorders].” The study found that air pollutants as much as doubled the risk of autism, particularly in the case of diesel and mercury.

After Harvard’s national study, ABC News reported, “It’s a correlation many Utah physicians have been considering for years – that pollution in the air could be a leading cause of autism.”

In Minnesota, news of the Harvard study should have created quite a stir, but it passed through with scarcely a murmur. Odd, when just last year Minnesota legislators picked Utah as their poster child for the proposed exchange of Superior National Forest lands. Exchanged lands would be used for mining, and speculative revenue from proposed sulfide mining deposited in the Permanent School Trust Fund. Never mind that mining revenue from School Trust Lands could never fully compensate for educating and possibly caring for children with neurological damage.

Never mind that the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2012 report (Minnesota does not participate) found that Utah had the nation’s highest autism rate, within an area that could arguably be called Utah’s copper mining district. A University of Utah study encompassing the same area also showed that the closer a child was born to Toxic Release Inventory Sites the higher the rate of autism spectrum disorders. Yet Utah was touted, as the reason Minnesota should promote sulfide mining in Minnesota. “For the children.”

Evidence has been steadily mounting that environmental toxins are a major factor for autism. Then, there is logic. Whether a baby breathes neurotoxins, ingests them, or they flow through the umbilical cord to the fetus, at some point neurologically damaged children result. 

Behind the scenes

Foreign mining corporations try guilt by messaging, “We all use metals;” therefore we should accept pollution of our waters and damage to our children. Never mind that these same corporations pollute in other countries, damaging other children, not because of “poor regulations” as they claim, but because of poor corporate ethics.

Inside its ranks the industry declares, “We’re at war!” I read the same rhetoric from sulfide mining supporters in Ely and Virginia not long ago; but first it was used at a Northwest Mining Association (NWMA) convention where presenters not only declared, “We’re at war,“ but also, “Find local people to speak for you.” In northern Minnesota, it appears they did.

After all, Minnesota is connected. PolyMet is a corporate member of NWMA, as is MiningMinnesota, Rio Tinto, Kennecott, Teck, URS, Golder Associates, Aquila Resources, and SGS Minerals; all corporations involved in the proposed sulfide mining assault of the Arrowhead.

And, as in all wars, women and their children are victims. The same year the MDH study, “Mercury in Newborns in the Lake Superior Basin,” was completed; the NWMA held its annual convention in Nevada, the state whose toxic mercury from gold mining blows into Utah. “A poison wind,” read one Utah headline.

The NWMA convention offered breakout sessions for attendees, eye-opening to say the least. One session was titled, “Strategic Communication:  How to Overcome Environmentalists, Native Tribes, and Not-In-My-Backyard (NIMBY) Opponents to Accelerate the Mine Permitting and Siting Process.”

Strategic communication taught in different NWMA sessions: Public debate is like playing a game; Make mining inevitable; Push Patriotism; Engage your opposition, so you can tell your member of Congress you engaged; Dialogue, so you can go to the Governor and say, “I met with them ten times;” The Hopi [Tribe] are well behaved; The Earth is not warming; Marginalize ideological opponents; Those opposed (environmentalists) are overpaid, undereducated, social misfits; I don’t have a license to practice medicine, can’t perform a lobotomy on NIMBY’s (protectionists, baby boomers, good people gone bad); We can’t do brain surgery on biodiversity groups; Younger generation believes in technical solutions to problems, brand your product, call it a “Twenty-first century mine;” Don’t put anything on your website you don’t want to explain to a judge; Put a few flowers in your reclamation mix so the photos turn out good; Law, regulation, and policy are on your side.

And, “A thirty-six year old woman with a baby on her hip is gold.”

No, it was not meant to honor a woman and her child. Women and babies are great for promotional purposes. Caring about their health with more than empty promises is another matter. I wonder if those speakers ever think about the babies who are the industry’s first victims?

Does that baby on its mother’s hip have the IQ it would have been born with, an undamaged brain, normally developed? Or, a brain altered, abilities stolen for financial gain. Damaged because of a profit driven industry’s perverse lack of adherence to state standards and lack of enforcement by agencies. Damaged because of political maneuverings by elected officials to delete or eviscerate laws meant to protect our children.

It is unequivocally a war on women and their children. Total casualties: unknown.