Friday, January 28, 2011

getting political: PolyMet and sulfide mining

Last weekend I attended a meeting organizing a grassroots movement against sulfide mining. I think I'm probably too undereducated and hermitish to be of much help, but I figured at the very least I could blog about it.

PolyMet is proposing open-pit mines in northeastern Minnesota near the communities of Babbitt, Hoyt Lakes, Biwabik and Aurora. This part of the state has a long history of iron mining, which has its own set of concerns, but these new proposed mines would be much, much more environmentally devastating. Metallic sulfide mining (also known as nonferrous mining or hard rock mining) is the process of extracting minerals like copper and nickle from a sulfide ore body. When the ore or surrounding rocks are exposed to water or air the result is sulfuric acid. The runoff from the mine site can pollute surface and ground water, killing or sickening wild vegetation, fish, birds and mammals as well as humans. The mining process would also allow toxic heavy metals like mercury and lead to leach into the water system. This is the first mine of its kind in Minnesota, but sulfide mines in other parts of the world have invariably left the surrounding ecosystem polluted. For example, the Flambeau mine in norther Wisconsin operated from 1991 to 1997, and despite precautions taken and despite years of clean-up and the removal of 7,400 tons of contaminated soil, water runoff from the site still has dangerously high levels of copper and other toxins, and Wisconsin has since enacted a moratorium on sulfide mining. In a recent study, fully 100% or mines similar to the proposed PolyMet mines in Minnesota had water quality violations.

The mine and tailings sites for the PolyMet project are just south of the Boundary Waters and are located on Superior National Forest land, and the site also includes two square miles of wetlands. The sites are dangerously close to the Partridge River and the Embarrass River, both of which flow into the St. Louis River, which in turn empties into Lake Superior. The proposed PolyMet mines would not be a health and safety hazard for just a small area on the Iron Range but would actually effect ALL wildlife and humans in northeastern Minnesota .

One of the arguments in favor of the mines is that they would create jobs, which people on the Iron Range desperately need. However, 60% of construction jobs and 75% of the operation jobs would go to people from outside the area, and all jobs would decrease over time as the mine becomes more automated. PolyMet is also historically anti-union, and profits from the mine would not stay in the Iron Range but would be funneled right back to PolyMet headquarters in Canada. Pollution from the mines would also greatly impact tourism related industries (wilderness outfitters, resorts and campgrounds, hotels, restaurants, etc.) and would ruin many bodies of water for wild ricing or fishing.

Save Our Sky Blue Waters and Water Legacy are two great websites for education and updates on PolyMet's proposed sulfide mine, and literature from these organizations was the source for this post. Friends of the Boundary Waters also has a page on sulfide mining, and there's also a short educational video at Precious Waters. If you want to write a letter to Minnesota's lawmakers, there is a template letter here to make it easy for you. Local activists have set up a public Facebook page--Sulfide Mining: Prove It First--and a google group for organizing. There's another meeting planned for mid-February and there are plans afoot for events and other activism.


  1. This is a really informative post -- thanks!

  2. Thanks for blogging about this. Hopefully you can continue to stay involved and writing about this issue.