Dayton to visit mines to help him decide on PolyMet

The Dakota Maid pit at the Gilt Edge mine
The Dakota Maid pit at the Gilt Edge mine east of Lead, S.D., contains water polluted by acid rock drainage.
Courtesy Environmental Protection Agency

Saying he is doing his "due diligence," Gov. Mark Dayton is visiting mine sites in two neighboring states this week to see firsthand both the good and the bad that could come from a proposed copper mine in northeast Minnesota.

One is a contaminated Superfund site that illustrates the risk of what opponents say could happen long after PolyMet has left Minnesota. The other shows the tantalizing shorter-term economic reward supporters say a new mine promises.

Gilt Edge is one of six sites suggested by PolyMet opponents. (It wasn't their top choice; that was the Mount Polley Mine in Canada, where a tailings basin recently failed, spilling over a billion gallons of waste. Dayton said that site was too remote.)

The 360-acre Gilt Edge Mine site
The 360-acre Gilt Edge Mine site is about 6 miles east of Lead, S.D.
Amy Varland | SDPB

In many ways, Gilt Edge is a poster child for mine opponents' worst fears.

The Brohm Mining Company began mining in 1986. Thirteen years later the company went bankrupt.

"We went to court to prevent them from leaving," said Bill Markley, administrator of the groundwater quality program at the South Dakota Department of Environment and Natural Resources. "But finally they ran out of money and disappeared and the state took over."

The site was contaminated with acid mine drainage. It's what happens when rock containing sulfide is exposed to air and water during mining. At Gilt Edge, that leached arsenic, lead and other heavy metals out of the rock and into the surrounding environment.

The company left behind about $6 million to help pay for cleanup — nearly $100 million short of what it has cost so far to contain the pollution.

A deer stood downstream from the Gilt Edge Mine.
A small deer stood in the Bear Butte Creek downstream from the Gilt Edge Superfund Site in the Black Hills.
Amy Varland | SDPB

"That mine has been a massive financial disaster," said Betsy Daub, policy director of Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, one of the groups that recommended Dayton visit Gilt Edge.

"This is what we've seen with lots of other mines, where they're underinsured, so when these disasters happen, there's simply just not the money there to deal with it. And we're worried about that happening here in Minnesota."

All that, says Daub, at a site where an environmental impact statement (EIS) predicted a very low risk of acid mine drainage.

"Similar to that, we hear in the PolyMet EIS lots of assurances that our sulfide content is too low to generate really bad pollution," Daub said. "Gilt Edge is just an example of many that had downplayed that risk, only to have a real problem on their hands in reality."

After South Dakota, Dayton on Friday travels to the Eagle Mine in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. The mine has created 400 jobs in an area that, like northeast Minnesota, also has a long history of iron ore mining.

"What he'll see is a company bringing tremendous jobs and economic development to an area that was depressed."

Frank Ongaro with Mining Minnesota says the governor will see an excellent example of modern mining.

"What he'll see is a company bringing tremendous jobs and economic development to an area that was depressed."

Eagle began producing nickel and copper nearly a year ago, after about 11 years of permitting and development.

It's an underground mine, as opposed to PolyMet's open-pit proposal. It extends 1,000 feet deep, 10 miles from the shore of Lake Superior. And it's only projected to operate for eight years; PolyMet plans to mine for at least 20.

The ore is trucked for processing to a refurbished iron ore facility — similar to PolyMet's proposal to reuse the abandoned LTV Mining plant outside Hoyt Lakes on the Iron Range.

But just as with PolyMet, the debate over the Eagle Mine was fierce, said Matt Johnson, a spokesperson for Lundin Mining, which operates Eagle. As in Minnesota, he said, the primary concern is protecting surrounding water resources.

"There's always the balance, or this controversy of jobs versus the environment," he said. "And what we're showing, what we're proving at Eagle Mine, is that it's not one or the other. You can do both."

Dayton will tour the Eagle Mine
Here's the portal to the Eagle Mine in western Marquette County, Mich. As Minnesota wrestles with whether to approve copper and nickel mining in the northern part of the state, Gov. Mark Dayton is planning to tour the mine.
John Flesher | AP

Eagle uses reverse osmosis technology to treat water at the mine site before discharging it into the environment, the same technology PolyMet is proposing.

The company made other moves to try to win over skeptics. At least 75 percent of its 400 employees are local hires. It gives microloans and has started an entrepreneur-consulting program to help soften the inevitable bust after the mine boom ends. It holds community forums twice a year and gives public tours every Friday. And it's entered into a partnership with a local environmental group to conduct independent monitoring of the mine.

While there's still some local opposition, Johnson said, those efforts have paid off.

"We do have community support today, and we continue to engage with the community on a regular basis to ensure that their concerns are addressed," he said.

Dayton said it will be helpful for him to actually see the mine sites, with both the promise and peril they pose, as he wrestles with an impending decision on PolyMet. "I'm really undecided," he said.

The next step comes early next month, when the Minnesota DNR plans to release its final environmental analysis of the project.

Correction (Oct. 26, 2015): An earlier version of this story said the DNR will release a draft of its final environmental analysis next month. The report will be the final version.

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