Polymet project draws friends and foes

PolyMet processing site
PolyMet Corporation has purchased key processing equipment once used to process taconite by LTV Mining Corporation. The large building in the foreground is the crushing facility where ore will be ground before metals can be extracted.
Photo courtesy PolyMet Corporation

The mine would be built at the old LTV taconite mine near Babbitt. Fourteen hundred people lost their jobs when the mine closed in 2001.

Polymet officials are excited about the money they can save by using the railroad, the electric lines and natural gas pipes, and some of the buildings already on hand.

But for a lot of people in northeastern Minnesota, iron ore mining is one thing, and mining for precious metals is something else entirely.

The main concern is acid drainage. The minerals Polymet wants to extract -- copper, nickel, platinum, gold -- are found in sulfide rock. When it's exposed to air and water, sulfide rock can produce sulfuric acid, which can drain into nearby lakes and rivers.

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"The company comes in and claims that it will do no harm," says Leonard Anderson. "They're going to provide all these jobs and do no harm."

"As public citizens, we ourselves need to verify that what is said gets done."

Anderson is a retired science teacher and long-time environmental activist. He reminded the crowd about mines in the western US and in Flambeau, Wisconsin, that have heavily polluted nearby waterways. He says the Polymet Company has no track record, and he worries it will follow an all-too-familiar pattern.

"They'll take out the valuable ore from the ground, and make a tidy profit," Anderson continues. "And about the time payday really rolls around for us, about the time we find that there's groundwater contamination, some of the really tough problems to solve, they declare bankruptcy. And then the big bills, these multi-million dollars bills, are left to the taxpayers."

But that's all in the past, according to Don Hunter, project general manager for Polymet.

"Yes, it's a fact that places like the Butte mine in Montana are a disaster," he says. "But that was a disaster created decades ago, and I think it would be fair to say the mining industry has learned significantly from that. I don't claim we're perfect by any means, but the improvements that have been made over that period of time are quantum step improvements."

Not only that, but Hunter says the rock at the Polymet mine has far less sulfide content than most existing mines. He says it's only because Polymet plans to use advanced technologies that they can mine it profitably.

The meeting was organized by the local chapter of the Izaak Walton League. Unlike some other environmental organizations, the Ikes have not taken a position on the proposed Polymet mine.

But Leonard Anderson, an Ikes member, is promoting legislation for Minnesota similar to a Wisconsin law that requires metals mining companies to point to successful mines elsewhere that have operated without harming the environment.

"Prove that it can be done without harm," he says. "Prove that you've got an example somewhere of this exact process, this exact specifications, that has done no harm. Then we can talk permit."

Proposed PolyMet site
A graphic illustrating the proposed PolyMet mining pit.
Image courtesy of PolyMet

But that idea doesn't make sense to Polymet's Don Hunter. He says because every ore body is different, and because technology is always advancing, it would be impossible to find an identical mine.

And Hunter says people need the metals the mine would produce, for plumbing pipes, hybrid cars, and even life-saving medical procedures.

"And I'd like to think we could produce them here, where at least we have a chance of producing them in an environmentally responsible way, which is more than you can say of some of the production in Asia at the moment," says Hunter.

People at the meeting said it was good to be able to hear both sides. But many of them still have questions. Peter Yurista quotes President Reagan's admonition: "trust, but verify."

"As public citizens, we ourselves need to verify that what is said -- gets done," he says.

And Yurista says he'll be watching.