Minnesota Conservation Volunteer magazine features sulfide mining story

The popular Department of Natural Resources magazine “Minnesota Conservation Volunteer” recently addressed the debate over sulfide mining proposals in northern Minnesota. The article, written by Duluth News Tribune reporter John Myers, looks at the economic potential of the minerals and the environmental concerns:

Minnesota Conservation Volunteer magazine cover“We’re talking about a copper range here that will rival or perhaps surpass the Iron Range in economic impact. It’s not a few hundred jobs for a decade or two. It’s thousands of jobs for maybe a century,” [Jim Miller, geology professor at the University of Minnesota Duluth and director of its Precambrian Research Center] said. “It’s really not a question of whether it will be mined. The question should be: When will it be mined?”

The answer from at least some Minnesotans is a resounding “not now.”

Some conservationists, local residents, tribal members, and even some government officials are skeptical, saying too many unanswered questions remain about what happens when you mine copper in a region rich with lakes and rivers. The loss of wetlands and forest habitat and industrial encroachment into quiet areas are concerns. Others question why the state wants to tie itself to another cyclical mining industry, which can, like iron ore has for more than a century, go from boom to bust in a matter of months and leave workers and entire communities in despair during the bad times.

But perhaps the biggest concern surrounding copper mining is the potential for polluted runoff into waterways. Unlike iron ore, which is mined from mostly benign less-reactive rock, copper is usually found in sulfide-ore bodies. When exposed to air and water, sulfide-bearing rock generates sulfuric acid, which must be managed, if it is in high enough concentrations, so that it does not lead to acidic runoff.

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The article includes the issue of mineral rights being leased out from under private property owners, and the potential impact on Ojibwe hunting and fishing rights. It closes with a pretty big hope:

“There’s a sense of inevitability now that this new type of mining is coming,” said Dave Zentner, a longtime Duluth conservation activist and former national president of the Izaak Walton League of America. “My hope is that we can at least put their feet to the fire and make these first copper permits in Minnesota the absolute gold standard of environmental protection, to set the example for the next mines coming down the road.”

“The hope is that the mining engineers are right, that they know how to do this, for the sake of the St. Louis River and the Boundary Waters,” Zentner said. “These resources are just too special to let them get it wrong.”

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