State rushes to judgment on environmental safety of sulfide mining

Originally published on MinnPost.

Superior National Forest

Superior National Forest

On my mother’s bookshelf rests a yellowing old cookbook, a fundraiser item for the women’s circle in her childhood Presbyterian church. “Predestined to Be Good.”  Well, perhaps that was a bit of a hasty determination. A flip through the pages reveals some out-right scary recipes. Lime and lemon Jell-O in chicken salad?

The Minnesota government is suffering from the same rush to judgment in its response to proposed sulfide mining projects in the state. State agency staff with oversight responsibility have prematurely declared mine projects to be environmentally safe before seeing proof and despite the industry’s long and perfect track record of polluting lakes, rivers and streams everywhere sulfide mining has been done. This is not a recipe for making sure the same thing won’t happen here.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) recently worked with PolyMet Mining Company to examine possible environmental impacts for the company’s proposal, which would be Minnesota’s first sulfide mine. In 2009, the DNR decided the draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) had thoroughly analyzed the potential impacts and mitigation measures to deal with pollution. It released the draft EIS for public review. But the draft EIS was a disaster. Rush to judgment #1.

The DNR and PolyMet proposed mine design would cause 2,000 years of water pollution into surrounding streams and rivers without a plan to deal with it (or pay for it). It would destroy or harm 1,600 acres of high quality wetlands without adequately mitigating those impacts. The proposal failed to collect enough information to understand the risks, failed to adequately measure the extent of likely impacts, and failed to sufficiently explore alternative designs to prevent pollution to surrounding waters.

EPA gave project an ‘F’

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was alarmed and gave the project its lowest rating of “Environmentally Unsatisfactory-Inadequate.” An unequivocal “F.”  The DNR and industry, red-faced, went back to work to revise the EIS, and they’ve been at work for nearly three years trying to figure out how to get it right. So far, Minnesotans have not seen a plan that shows that to be possible.

That hasn’t stopped Minnesota’s government from declaring the project safe. Despite the decidedly unsafe first proposal, the track record of pollution and taxpayer liability elsewhere, and an obligation to evaluate the facts in an unbiased fashion, Minnesota’s DNR is already publicly stating that this type of mining can be done right.

In the July-August 2012 edition of the Minnesota Conservation Volunteer, then head of the DNR’s Division of Lands and Minerals Larry Kramka, noted, “If we have this vast resource here, if we know we can do it the right way, aren’t we somewhat obliged to mine it here?” How, one must wonder, does he already know we can do it right?  Rush to judgment #2.

Serious risks downplayed

In November, Minnesota’s Environmental Quality Board released “Minnesota’s Environmental and Energy Report Card” (PDF), written with input from eight state agencies, including the DNR and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. The report is being distributed at a series of public meetings being held across the state called the “Environmental Congress.” Under a section entitled “Managing our Minerals and Mines,” our state government makes this pronouncement about sulfide mining: “With advances in processing technology and environmental impact mitigation, extraction is now economically and environmentally viable.”  Rush to judgment #3.

These statements reveal a predetermined opinion that downplays real, serious and long-lasting risks to places like the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Lake Superior, as well as to our pocketbooks if taxpayers get left paying for the clean-up. Our state agencies should objectively analyze mine proposals and review all the facts before making determinations.

With so much at stake, we need confidence in the decisions these agencies will make. Calling Jell-O chicken salad “good” does not make it good, nor does it instill confidence about the cooks.

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    2 comments to State rushes to judgment on environmental safety of sulfide mining

    • Rick Mammel

      Anyone approving this sulfide mining operation, especially any legislator, should be charged and tried for treason.

      Besides, these are Minnesota’s resources that would be sold outside this state. Hence, citizens of this state lose the money as well as the environmental devestation. This is abominable.

    • Patti Kratky

      I am teaching a book,”A Hopeful Earth: by Sally Dyck ( United Methodist Church past Minnesota Bishop) and Sarah Erhman. She says only humans pollute and create a hell for those who are not in charge in any way. I believe this. We take without restraint and leave those without power to suffer. To live together on earth, we must change this attitude or we will all suffer without measure in a earth polluted by ourselves.

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