Minnesota’s Iron Range Dilemma

Doc and his John — on the Canadian side of the Boundary Waters Canoe area, Quetico Provincial Park — about 1 second before they flipped their canoe over!

Upon migrating to America in 1902, my Grandfather Nordberg began his life working in an iron mine near Pengilly, Minnesota. The young woman he married, also a recent migrant, worked in a restaurant there. Enterprising, he finally hired a crew of loggers and began cutting much needed timbers for underground iron mines. Decades later, one of my Nordberg cousins drove a Uke (Euclid) in an iron mine. Iron mining is therefore in my family’s blood and I am proud of it.

It is therefore not my intention to do anything that might make the lives of those who live in our Iron Range more difficult than it already is. If I can, I only want to help protect them from what is certain to happen if sulfide (copper) mining gains a foothold in northeastern Minnesota. PolyMet says copper mining will be bigger in Minnesota than iron mining and I personally can envision it happening, having often seen its widespread devastation in New Mexico and Arizona. A large part of Minnesota’s scenic Arrowhead Region can indeed be turned into a rocky moonscape by copper mining where nothing can live thereafter for thousands of years. In the long run it would probably cost Minnesota cost taxpayers much more than can be gained from copper and nickel to keep sulfuric acid and other poisonous substances from spreading via water and air to nearby towns, farms and forests including the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and Ontario’s Quetico Provincial Park. The proof that this can happen is enormously documented on the internet. Just type in “Copper Mining in North America” and see what you find. If you do not have a computer, call Friends of the Boundary Wilderness (612-332-9630) or write to Friends of the Boundary Wilderness, 401 N 3rd St., Suite 290, Minneapolis, MN 55401-1475 and ask for a copy of “A Mining Truth Report.”

Today, Minnesota’s iron rangers are in a terrible economic bind not of their own making. Ironically, Minnesota’s current unemployment rate is 3.7, one of the lowest in America. Rather than allow dangerous and destructive copper mining to begin in Minnesota, I wish our state legislature would create and pass a bill that would enable laid-off iron miners to learn a new trade and resettle in economically healthy areas throughout our state wherever needed. Surely this would be a safer and least expensive way to solve “Minnesota’s Iron Range Dilemma.”

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Other Sources of Dangerous Pollutants Associated with Copper Mining

Caption for Photo—These Arrowhead Region fish already contain toxic levels of mercury. (Doc’s grandson Tyler with a large northern St Louis county walleye.)

Sulfuric acid and other potentially dangerous pollutants such as mercury, copper, lead arsenic, cadmium, selenium and nickel (which are toxic to fish, wildlife and humans) not only drain from from mountains of sulfide tailings (unused low grade ore) surrounding all copper mines, but drain from open pit walls, sulfide laden dust along routes used to transport ore to a processing facilities and from liquid processing wastes disposed of in tailings basins. No U.S, or Canadian copper mine operation has ever succeeded in keeping these contaminants contained as long as these dangerous pollutants exist. The Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the PolyMet mine predicts its west pit will fill with water and overflow into the Partridge River about 45 years after the mine’s closure (adding up to 65 years of accumulating sulfuric acid and other pollutants). The EIS also noted this discharge would exceed water quality standards for antimony and possibly nickel, sulfate, cobalt, copper and mercury for 550 to 2000 years.

Sulfates have been shown to turn non-toxic forms of mercury into airborne methyl mercury which is likely to be dispersed great distances by water and winds (likely to include the BWCA and Quetico Provincial Park in Ontario). Walleyes and other fish in some lakes in the Arrowhead Region already have enough mercury in them (likely originating from coal-burning power plants and paper mills far upwind) to make it necessary for our DNR to post warnings at boat launches, directing anglers to limit numbers of fish consumed over specific periods of time, least amounts or none recommended for children and pregnant or nursing women. The EIS for the PolyMet mine acknowledges “Relatively high sulfate concentrations would be released to wetlands north of the tailings basin and lakes downstream on the Embarrass River (which flows into the St Louis River and thence into Lake Superior at Duluth) that represent high risk situations for mercury methylation.” There is some uncertainty whether the west pit overflow will meet the Lake Superior Mercury Standard.

As stated in the “A Mining Truth Report” recently prepared by the conservation group, Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, reveals, “Sulfide (copper) mining pollution can continue for hundreds of thousand years, even indefinitely. The generation of acid drainage will continue as long as sulfides, water and air mix. No new technologies have emerged can stop the chemical action once it begins. Some hardrock mines in western states need expensive water treatment into perpetuity.”

Acid from Copper Mine Tailings

Considering the known risks and dangers associated with every copper mine past and present in the U.S. and Canada, it seems strange we Minnesotans have not been hearing much if anything about them. Meanwhile, Canada’s new PolyMet Mining Company (which has never mined copper before) is quietly forging ahead to obtain rights to mine copper between Hoyt Lakes and Babbitt near the eastern end of the Iron Range in St. Louis County. PolyMet’s Environmental Impact Statement has already been approved by our MDNR but it still must be approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Forestry Service, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and several tribal governments.

What is risky and dangerous about copper mining? Unlike iron, copper and many other metals including nickel is found in sulfide bearing rock. When sulfide bearing rock is dug up and exposed to water (rain or snow) and oxygen, the sulfide turns into sulfuric acid (the same caustic acid used in car batteries).

There are several sources of sulfuric acid in copper mining. One is tailings. Copper mine tailings are piles of sulfide bearing rocks not containing enough copper to make it feasible to extract copper from them. Adjacent to PolyMet’s three planned open pits (in an area 500 football fields in size) will be piles of tailings 20 stories high. Once rain water and oxygen begin percolating down into these piles, nothing can stop sulfuric acid from forming. Though PolyMet plans to place waterproof liners in basins under these piles, the company admits these liners will eventually deteriorate and crack. Sulfuric acid will then pollute surface and ground water and aid in destroying about 1600 acres of surrounding wetlands — the largest permitted destruction of wetlands in Minnesota history. PolyMet also predicts sulfuric acid will eventually overflow from one basin into the adjacent Partridge River (killing everything living in the water). This river flows past the town of Hoyt Lakes into adjacent Colby lake and then into the St.Louis River which finally empties into Lake Superior at Duluth. At every other copper mine in operation in America and Canada today, great volumes of sulfuric acid and other dangerous pollutants have been accidently(?) released into water courses from time to time, ruining 1,118 miles of streams in Montana alone. Numerous containments at the mine site are expected to exceed water quality standards for hundreds to several thousands of years.

This is only the beginning. Watch for more about the dangers of copper mining in my future blog posts

Should Copper Mining be Allowed in Northeastern Minnesota?

With steel prices down and hundreds of miners being laid off across Minnesota’s Iron Range, it is only natural that open pit copper mining currently being promoted by the PolyMet Mining Company appears to be just what is needed to restore the economy in this beleaguered region of our state. But is it worth the risk?

“What risk?” you ask. “Hasn’t our Department of Natural Resources already approved PolyMet’s Environmental Protection Plan? Hasn’t PolyMet (a company that has never mined copper before) assured us environmental catastrophies characteristic of all other copper mines throughout the U.S. and Canada cannot happen here — a short distance west of our Boundary Waters Canoe Area and Ontario’s adjoining Quetico Provincial Park?”

The trouble is, when it comes to copper mining, we Minnesotans are babes in the woods. We know nothing about it. It is no coincidence PolyMet began promoting copper mining here while laid-off iron miners were begging for jobs and an extension of unemployment compensation. At other times, copper mining might have been a tough sell here.

For eighteen years, my wife Jene and I spent three months each winter in southern New Mexico and Arizona where open pit copper mining is huge in comparison to open pit iron mining in Minnesota. Everywhere we went, Silver City and Tuscon, for example, scores of people were angry and attempting to bring a halt to something copper mines were doing, planning to do or not doing. In these two cities hardly a day went by without being asked to sign a petition by persons seeking to prevent an entire scenic mountain from being reduced to poisonous rubble or trying to bring a halt to what waterborne or airborne chemicals from a nearby copper mine were doing to children and others. What copper mining is likely to do in Minnesota where fishing, hunting, camping and canoeing have long been cherished by millions of Americans for more than a century is trifling compared to what many humans now face near copper mines in other U.S, states and Canada today. Did you know that? Doesn’t that seem strange?

How about this question: with so many U.S. and Canadian copper mines now in operation, does the world really need Minnesota’s copper? Or does todays price of copper have something to do with it?

You don’t have to be a miner or earn a PhD in Hard Rock Mining to understand why copper mining is apt to be dangerous to humans, game, fish and forests or why such mines are likely to continue to be dangerous hundreds if not thousands of years after they are closed. Watch for my next copper mining blog post to learn why.