It's amazing how easily politicians and media swallow the feel-good propaganda pill presented by powerful mining interests seeking to mine Minnesota's low grade copper-nickel deposits. Mining companies may have cornered the market on minerals, but they should not have a monopoly on truth.
We need to consider the following pieces of propaganda with our minds and eyes wide open.
Are these metals critical for our own needs?
The truth is that the demand for copper, nickel and myriad other metals is coming from China. As China becomes an industrial nation, it is moving its population from rural to urban areas. These metals are needed for residential pipes and wiring and for factory construction and processes. In addition, China is aggressively building infrastructure and transportation systems to accommodate 1.4 billion people. China is accepting metals in semi-processed form, such as would be produced by the proposed PolyMet mining operation, a Canadian venture. China is reportedly stockpiling such metals.
If we don't mine in Minnesota, will the equivalent mining happen in other countries with fewer safeguards?
The truth is that mining companies, anticipating continued global demand, are mining anywhere and everywhere. Mining in Minnesota will not stop mining in any other place.
In fact, the extent of global mining creates its own cycle of demand for more metals, more oil for fuel and more electricity. Increasingly scarce resources are being used to mine low-grade ores. In the case of proposed underground mining in Minnesota, no one is discussing worker safety. When deposits are low-grade, companies seek ways to cut costs.
Will new mining processes prevent pollution?
Mining less than 1 percent sulfide ores requires blasting, crushing and grinding of rock, 99 percent of which becomes waste rock and tailings capable of leaching acid mine drainage and toxic heavy metals into the watershed.
The only thing really "new" about proposed copper-nickel mining is refinement of the ability to extract very low-grade ores through heat, pressure and chemicals in the hydrometallurgical process. The propaganda describes this as "next-generation, environmentally friendly mining."
PolyMet plans to store toxic residues from its proposed plant on plastic liners with predicted leaking rates, allowing heavy metals eventually to leach into the watershed. Particulates and air emissions from plant operations would produce haze and contribute to acid rain.
In an underground setting, such as that proposed by Twin Metals (a Canadian-Chilean joint venture), leaching occurs through both natural fractures in the rock and those created by blasting. Underground mining also produces waste rock and tailings.
The necessary crushing and grinding of the mineralized sulfide deposits releases sulfur embedded in the rock. Because the formation of sulfuric acid requires both air and water, it is extremely difficult to prevent acid mine drainage in a wetland environment, such as that of northeast Minnesota. This is why the mining of sulfide ores creates the potential need for perpetual treatment, as noted by the EPA in its analysis of the PolyMet draft environmental impact statement last February.
Nice-sounding words do not prevent acid mine drainage.
Are these metals necessary for a green future?
The mining of low-grade ores, by virtue of the amount of energy required to remove them from bedrock, are the antithesis of "green." In addition to mining local rock, the PolyMet process requires 200,000 tons per year of limestone, which must also be mined and brought in by rail. Nine tank cars per month of sulfuric and hydrochloric acid would be brought in by truck or rail, along with other chemicals. Huge machinery runs on diesel fuel and electricity. Mining trucks require frequent replacement of tires. And semi-processed ores must be shipped somewhere else for final smelting.
Mining leaves behind a huge energy footprint.
PolyMet's open pits would destroy or harm more than 1,000 acres of carbon-sequestering wetlands, the greatest single loss in the history of the Army Corps of Engineers in Minnesota, and destroy habitat for birds, plants and wildlife. The opening of a sulfide mining range in northeast Minnesota would replace a green ecosystem with waste rock and would pollute watersheds that drain into both Lake Superior and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.
By relying on mining of scarce metals, we are failing to invest in research and technologies that might actually be green. Rather than encouraging consumers to buy ever more goods, leaders should promote recycling, conservation and efficiencies. Jobs that offer local goods, services and repair -- while increasing durability, saving on transportation and building community -- would also be jobs that can't be outsourced.
We need to define as a nation the meaning of a green and sustainable future.
Will mining revive the northeastern Minnesota economy by providing jobs?
Opening up a copper-nickel range adjacent to the Iron Range will not diversify the economy, but it will destroy the remaining wilderness character of the Arrowhead. Mining propaganda doesn't mention the jobs that will be lost -- those that involve tourism and recreation in the area adjacent to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and Superior National Forest. Visitors seek wilderness to get away from noise and pollution.
Mining will also destroy jobs for the future. Land cordoned off after mining is land not available to the public. Waste rock piles, tailings basins and open pits are uninhabitable. Lands will not be available for hunting and fishing, and fisheries will be destroyed by mercury, other toxic heavy metals and acid mine drainage. Forestry jobs will be lost, as forests cannot be grown or harvested from tailings, waste rock piles and open pits. Lakeshore property in the Birch Lake and Kawishiwi River area will be sacrificed to a mining zone.
These are not existing jobs that are threatened with termination if PolyMet doesn't receive permits. These jobs are theoretical and dependent upon the status quo preventing development of alternative technologies that use fewer metals.
So where should we go from here? Is mining, with its inherent byproduct of destruction of the environment, the only answer for Minnesota? Or should we be exploring for new ideas? Should we be mining our creativity as a natural resource?
When mining propaganda prevents us from exploring other ideas, it is indeed a bitter pill to swallow.
Elanne Palcich is a retired teacher.