Miner’s Almanac

It’s difficult for me to read the grim news of the chemical spill in West Virginia without thinking immediately of my friends in Minnesota. “A 23 year gap in oversight” is now listed among the chief causes of the spill of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol into the Elk River. How, in the wake of this disaster, or in light of any of the other industrial spills and explosions and disasters that seem to be in the news nearly every week, can anyone in Minnesota still seriously entertain the idea that Polymet Mining will maintain water treatment facilities for up to 500 years at its open-pit sulfide mine near Hoyt Lakes?

If Freedom Industries, the Department of Homeland Security and other government entities can’t keep track of one storage tank in West Virginia for less than a quarter century, how are we going to keep track of a toxic site on Lake Superior for five centuries? The whole thing seems so absurd, like a really bad joke, told with a sinister wink and a nod.

As I tried to suggest in a previous post, the debate over Polymet’s 500 year water treatment model projects responsibilities so far out into the future as to render them utterly meaningless, making a farce out of the very idea of oversight or even what in the ugly parlance of the regulator is called “environmental impact.”

But just a couple of weeks ago, in a roundtable on Polymet aired on Twin Cities Public Television’s Almanac program, host Cathy Wurzer dutifully took up her part in the farce, fidgeting with her fancy glasses to indicate that she was being serious and inquiring of her guests whether this “has this been done, this kind of treatment, over this amount of time, has it been done successfully elsewhere?” Really? I half expected someone to remind Wurzer that reverse-osmosis technology wasn’t exactly around in the year 1514. Instead, Kathryn Hoffman, an attorney with the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, politely answered: “we certainly have no models or examples of successful mitigation over that period of time,” and to her credit she kept a straight face and even managed to cite “over 42 exceedances” of water quality standards at Eagle Mine in Michigan, where water is treated through reverse osmosis – and the mine has not even yet gone into production.

Only later in the program did Becky Rom, of the organization Sustainable Ely, suggest that “it’s not rational to believe” that the facilities Polymet builds today will last “for hundreds of years.” That’s exactly right: it’s completely irrational. In fact, it’s a ridiculous fantasy – or a pathological delusion — to think that Polymet itself will be around fifty or one-hundred or five-hundred years from now, and “always in compliance” as Frank Ongaro, Executive Director of Mining Minnesota declared on the same program.

But that’s only the most egregious falsehood that Polymet and pro-mining groups are asking us to credit.

Pro-mining guests on Almanac were also trying to foist on the public the idea that the mining of copper and nickel at the Polymet site will be no different — – in terms of its potential effects on the land and water — from the mining that has been historically done on Minnesota’s Iron Range. That is patently untrue, but it tugs at the heartstrings and appeals to the nostalgia and pride that the immigrant mining story still inspires: that’s why Polymet has already secured a place for itself in Minnesota mining history on its website, and it’s also why Carly Mellin, who hails from the Iron Range and serves as Assistant Majority Leader of the Minnesota House of Representatives, played the heritage card at the end of the program: “we’ve been mining 132 years on the iron range and we still have an absolutely beautiful region of the state,” she said, in what sounded like a clearly rehearsed closing remark, “and I plan to continue for it to be beautiful after copper-nickel mining.” Lucky for her there was no time for people to press her on what exactly those plans are and how she plans to realize them.

For his part, Frank Ongaro kicked off the entire debate with a misleading statement that cast Polymet’s mining project as a matter of self-sufficiency – a project done in the national interest:

We’re sitting in Minnesota on one of the largest deposits of copper, nickel, platinum metals in the world – metals we’re import-dependent on for everything we use, every day in our life.

Carly Mellin reiterated the point a little while later. There may be some traces here of an earlier argument that proponents of HR 761 tried to advance – claiming that mining near the Boundary Waters was “necessary for U.S. strategic interests.” But here Ongaro is really making a cheaper appeal, to jingoism and state pride, and at first blush, he makes a certain amount of sense. Why import what we have in abundance here? If we have metals or other resources we need, why not use them instead of relying on imported stuff?

The copper and nickel taken out of the Minnesota ground will not stay in Minnesota and be smelted and worked as in the days of yore by hardworking Minnesota craftsmen into sturdy tools and smart technologies that twenty-first Minnesotans can use. Mining copper and nickel on the Iron Range may, in fact, have the unintended effect of exposing the region in new ways to the turbulence of the global commodities marketplace.

Rio Tinto’s play for Michigan copper was never about Michigan; it was part of a bet on continued Chinese growth and urbanization. The price of copper – U.S. copper, Chilean copper, Mongolian copper – rises and falls these days on Chinese demand. Copper and nickel mined on the Iron Range will not make us more self-sufficient or serve the strategic interests of the United States. At best, those minerals may be warehoused here for a while, in New Orleans and in other ports; but they are destined for the international market.

This is the cat Frank Ongaro was desperately trying to keep in the bag when Becky Rom called Polymet “a shell company” for Glencore Xstrata, the Swiss global commodities giant. (With about 35 percent of all shares. Glencore is Polymet’s largest investor.)

Rom: I think you have to understand that Polymet isn’t going to be around at year 20. This is a shell company that’s shielding its major investor —
Ongaro (clapping his hands): That’s not true!
Rom: Glencore, that’s known for corruption, and environmental and labor violations —
Ongaro: Every company that operates in the state of Minnesota –
Rom: and at the end…at the end —
Ongaro: –will have to follow state laws, period.
Rom: –at the end of twenty years when they have done extracting the metals and earning their revenue, all they will have as an asset is a polluted mine site. So…we the taxpayer…will carry…the burden for what is going to be in fact hundreds of years.

Eventually, of course, the truth will out. But with precious little time left in the 90-day public comment period that began on December 14th, it needs to come out now.

7 thoughts on “Miner’s Almanac

  1. Colleen Powers

    I used to live in MN, for decades, so I have many friends in MN. I asked one of my closest friends in MN if she knew about the 500 year water remediation. She said “Everyone knows, everyone feels helpless and up on the Iron Range, it means jobs and that’s really all anyone areas. The 500 years means nothing. All anyone cares about is jobs.”

    Unemployment up on the Iron Range has been wicked fierce.

    It seems a bit dissociative that Almanac, a show I used to greatly respect as a rare remaining bastion of actual journalism on public television, to only talk about the envirionment in what your report tends to come off as so abstract as to be meaningless.

    I think Almanac would have done better to zero in on why ‘the people’ are letting this insane 500 year promise to remediate water to happen: jobs. Talk about what really matters to the folks up there: livelihood, feeding families, sending kids to college, whatever. And talk about how destroying the envirionment is going to destroy more jobs, eventually, than it creates.

    You make great points. Name one corporation in 2014 that was thriving and legally incorporated 500 years ago.

    And how about comparing 500 years water remediation with nuclear power plants built to work for 20 or 30 news getting renewals when the plants are too old to operate. And what about all the spent rods we are stuck with for what amounts to forever?

    And the best part of MN is it’s water. It’s license plate says ‘land of 10,000 lakes’. Water means more to humans than copper or nickel of whatever. Talk about where the drinking water will come from in 50 years of mining but with 450 years of water remediation left?

    Your analogy to the water horror W. Virginia is apt but also very frightening. A 23 year gap ruined drinking water for a huge watershed where humans live. 23 years versus 500.

    Who is getting paid off in MN? Do politicians care about staying in office so much that they sell the human future for campaign donations and jobs for unskilled relatives?

    500 years?


    1. lvgaldieri Post author

      Your friend says “All anyone cares about is jobs.” I don’t believe that’s true, even if that’s what the politicians and the people on television say. Think about how much gets lost when we reduce prosperity — or what people care about — to job numbers. I’ll venture that people living on the Iron Range or in the UP (even the people who say they care only about jobs) care about all kinds of things mining jobs cannot and will not ever provide. Some might be things they take for granted, and won’t notice until they are gone for good. Unfortunately, as you point out, ideas like these don’t get aired in public discussions, or at least not on public TV programs like Almanac, and won’t get adequately discussed in the 90-day public comment period.


  2. Colleen Powers

    You quote that Ongaro person saying ‘every corporation has to follow the laws of the state”. Um, last I heard, corporations could go bankrupt in MN and escape 480 years of water remediation liability.


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