Copperheads vs. Greens

A plan to open the Superior National Forest to copper mining promises good jobs and threatens enviro troubles

As PolyMet Mining Corporation Vice President Warren Hudelson tells it, his company's plan to construct Minnesota's first-ever copper and nickel mine is all upside. "These are the high-quality, good-paying jobs that could sustain the entire regional economy," Hudelson declares. For the Iron Range town of Hoyt Lakes, which was left reeling by the loss of some 1,400 jobs in the wake of the bankruptcy of the LTV Steel Company plant six years ago, the potential economic benefits are tantalizing. PolyMet says it will employ up to 400 full-time workers for at least the next 20 years and possibly twice as long.

And while the company has not committed to a unionized work force, Hudelson expects the jobs will pay wages comparable to those earned by union steel workers—in other words, as much as $65,000 year. Then there are the approximately one million man hours of construction work needed to rehab the old LTV facility, where PolyMet plans to process the ore it extracts from a mine in the Superior National Forest six miles away. That project, Hudelson says, would provide temporary work for up to 1,000 skilled laborers. Finally, Hudelson points to a study from the University of Minnesota Duluth that estimated PolyMet's venture would yield an additional 500 spin-off jobs, mainly in the service sector.

Given such rosy prognostications, it's no surprise that Iron Range politicians and business folk alike have touted the PolyMet proposal as an important boost to the region's fortunes. The proposal has garnered the enthusiastic support of Iron Range Resources, a state-run economic development agency. While the IRR has not yet provided direct financial aid, it greased the skids for PolyMet's acquisition of the old LTV plant, a critical factor in the company's financial plan.

Colorful but deadly: Acid mine drainage in a Pennsylvania creek
Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection
Colorful but deadly: Acid mine drainage in a Pennsylvania creek

But the PolyMet proposal has also sparked skepticism and, increasingly, fervent opposition among environmentalists. That's because, historically, sulfide ore mining—the process by which copper, nickel, and assorted precious metals are extracted from sulfide ores—has long been one of the dirtiest, most ecologically damaging forms of mining. The chief problem is a phenomenon called acid mine drainage: When water and air mix with the sulfur in the unused ore, it can generate a toxic brew. If that run-off escapes to streams and rivers, it can leave waterways either badly impaired or, in the worst-case scenarios, entirely devoid of aquatic life.

Bob Tammen, a retired electrician from Mountain Iron who volunteers with the Sierra Club, says he was agnostic about the PolyMet proposal when he first heard about it. Then, during a visit to South Dakota last summer, he stopped by the site of an abandoned sulfide ore mine in the Black Hills. It was, Tammen says, a bleak experience. The mine, which closed in 1999 after a decade of operation, was plagued by problems of acid mine drainage from the outset.

Faced with the prospect of an expensive cleanup, the mine's owner, a Canadian company called Dakota Mining, ultimately declared bankruptcy. And while the company did post a $5.6 million bond to pay for cleanup costs, that bond proved grossly inadequate. The shuttered mine is now a federal superfund site.

"It was the same old story," offers Tammen. "These companies talk about creating jobs and how, when they're done, the area will be cleaner than when they started. That's not how it works out." Dakota Mining was right about one thing: The mine did create lasting jobs. "I talked to a man who was working there who said they had eight employees, all monitoring pollution," Tammen recalls. "He said it was going to cost between $40 and $140 million to clean up the site."

There is no shortage of such horror stories. Nationwide, according to the Sierra Club, the cost of cleaning up waterways contaminated by acid runoff and related mining pollutants has been estimated at $32-$72 billion.

According to a two-year study released last week by the environmental advocacy group Earthworks, government regulators, the mining industry, and its consultants consistently underestimate the amount of water contamination at hard rock mines. According to the report, 100 percent of the mining companies surveyed predicted at the outset that they would not violate water-quality standards for their operations. In the end, the report concluded, at least 76 percent of those mines did violate standards and, in 64 percent of the cases, mitigation plans failed to produce the predicted remedies. The result? Across the American west, the public has been left to foot most of the bill for the cleanup.

Arlo Knoll, the manager of the Department of Natural Resource's mine land reclamation office, says he's aware of the high costs associated with acid mine drainage and pledges that it will be taken into account in the drafting of PolyMet's permits. "On a yearly basis, they will have to provide financial assurance in case there has to be [mine] closure, and that would have to address not only [closing the mine] but long-term maintenance," Knoll says.

Neither Knoll nor PolyMet's Hudelson could provide any dollar estimates on the financial assurance package PolyMet will be required to post. According to Hudelson, those calculations will be made once the company's environmental impact statement has been completed and its mining plans formalized.

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