Pollution be damned, Tom Emmer throws a giant handout to the mining industry

Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

The toxic soup of mud, nickel, and arsenic from the holding pond spewed into Lake Quesnel before finding the Cariboo River. 

The breach at the Mount Polley copper and gold mine in British Columbia in 2014 lasted five days. Quensel Lake, maybe the cleanest deep water lake on the planet, turned into a toilet of poisonous scum. The breach totaled 660 million gallons of pollution. It left behind a trail of rocks, trees, and stream banks coated in ashy gunk.   

Congressman Tom Emmer (R-Delano) prefers not to think of such matters. He's fighting for a "way of life," according to a recent guest editorial in the Star Tribune. His mission: "to preserve and celebrate" mining in Minnesota. 

The lawmaker's new bill would grease the wheels for Twin Metals to build a giant copper mine along the Kawishiwi River near Superior National Forest's Boundary Waters Canoe Area.    

To see what the future of the Minnesota mine will probably be, look to Mount Polley. Sulfide mines are notorious for groundwater pollution.       

The legislation, co-sponsored by Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Detroit Lakes) and Rep. Jason Lewis (R-Woodbury), essentially undercuts the U.S. Forest Service's ability to protect federal land. Under current law, the agency decides whether National Forests should be off-limits to mining. But Emmer's bill puts the final call in the hands of Congress. 

In other words, the decision would go from scientists to a Congress that, given its current constitution, largely doesn't believe in science at all. 

Emmer's proposal takes aim at an ongoing environmental review of about 235,000 protected acres in northern Minnesota. The study could lead to a 20-year mining moratorium on the National Forest land. Emmer wants to grant mining rights to Twin Metals first. Once that's done, he proposes a review to follow.

Becky Rom of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters is worried. If Emmer's proposal becomes law, the company and its supporters "will get to produce a mining model that says we won't pollute and with that they'll get their permits."        

Messages to Emmer's office were not returned. But the politician's arguments were on full display in his August editorial. He warned how losing the mine "could potentially result in the loss of thousands of jobs — good-paying jobs."

He offered assurances the handout wouldn't come with an environmental price. Rest assured the federal government's "extensive environmental process" will "protect" and "preserve Minnesota's pristine landscape," he wrote. 

It's a hard to imagine how Mother Nature might win. The mine would involve miles of blasted tunnels. Waste rock and tailings containing sulfuric acid byproducts, known to increase cancer risks, require dumping grounds. The company says half will be used as underground backfill, the rest stored in a "modern, lined… facility" at the surface. 

This type of operation would be unprecedented in Minnesota, and is routinely known to cause widespead pollution.

The mine's corporate parent, Chilean mining titan Antofagasta Minerals, is a known polluter. Its flagship mine in Chile, Los Pelambres, was behind toxic spills into the valleys of the Coquimbo region. 

No one should be making environmental guarantees when sulfide mining is involved, according to  Javad Sattarvand of the University of Neveda, Reno. There's always the danger of surface and groundwater pollution. And stopping all of the mine's excreting liquids is impossible.