Why a mining accident in British Columbia matters to Minnesota

The Mount Polley copper and gold mine lies at the head of the Fraser River in Cariboo, British Columbia, a mammoth site of pits, vehicles, and steel infrastructure designed to extract precious metals from the rocks below.

The project is nearly 2,000 miles and two time zones away from Minnesota. But after a major disaster earlier this month, and with the mine's similarities to proposed projects in Minnesota, it could wind up having an impact on the future of mining in the state.

See also: Buried Treasure: On the Iron Range, the surging commodities market may bring prosperity. But it might also threaten one of the state's greatest natural resource

The accident at Mount Polley occurred in its tailings pond, a large pool holding the non-valuable rocks left behind after they've been mined. The dam containing the pond breached, sending 1.3 billion gallons of pollutants into the nearby ponds, lakes, and rivers.

It left hundreds without drinkable water. While the damage to wildlife is now being seen as far less than what was originally estimated, the total cost could wind up at $200 million.

For Minnesota, this matters for two reasons. First, as the environmental group Mining Truth pointed out, the environmental consulting group Knight Piesold, which performed the initial engineering on the pond that breached, was hired by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to assess the impact of a proposed Minnesota precious metal mine from PolyMet Mining Corp.

The thinking was that if the company couldn't keep the Mount Polley mine safe, how would it be able to ensure Minnesota's was safe, too?

As it stands now, PolyMet is still planning to begin construction on the mine next year, but a whole lot stands in its way, from a final state environmental review to the actual permitting process. Environmental groups are still up in arms over the project, though, as sulfide mining has a far greater risk of water pollution than other mines (like the taconite mines on the Iron Range). Seeing the connections between PolyMet and an accident only raises more questions for them.

"Minnesotans are being asked to put a lot of faith in these companies that their projects won't endanger the mine's workers or the surrounding environment," said Paul Danicic, executive director of the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness.

As it turns out, that worry may have been a bit overblown. Knight Piesold said last week that while it did work on the initial designs of the Mount Polley mine, everything has changed so much since then that the company can't be blamed. In fact, the company said that it was asking the government all the way back in 2010 to keep a close eye on the project to make sure it was safe.

That brings up the second, arguably more important point. While Minnesota's mine obviously isn't the same as the one in British Columbia, the breach highlights the inherent danger in this type of precious metal mining. When you mine for these kinds of minerals, you're inherently uncovering pollutants that can harm water and wildlife. There are ways to limit the damage, like through the water treatment plants that PolyMet has proposed, but you can never fully guarantee that things won't go wrong.

And things have gone wrong before. The British Columbia spill is the worst-case scenario for these types of precious metal mines, but it's not even close to the only project that's had problems. As just one example, Nevada's Leviathan Mine extracted metals through the 1950s, but once the mine was abandoned, it left behind dangerous minerals that, when mixed with rain or snow, turned into sulfuric acid that polluted nearby waters. The problem has since mostly been treated, but it's still costing money to this day.

For Minnesota, the question is whether there's enough oversight and regulation to ensure the same thing won't happen here.

You can see video of the Mount Polley breach here:

Send your story tips to the author, Robbie Feinberg. Follow him on Twitter @robbiefeinberg.

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