We’ve been mining here in Minnesota for a long time — who better to do this?
Northern Minnesotans have been mining for well over a century, and the strong work-ethic and commitment to quality work is reflected in the legacy mines hold in this region. Many Iron Range communities get their drinking water from now filled-in open-pit iron mines.
However, sulfide mining differs greatly from the traditional iron-ore mining Minnesotans are used to. The processes are far different and the waste products are, too. While communities are able to drink from the old iron mines due to the low levels of contaminants, no one would want to drink the water from a sulfide mine’s tailing pond, which require 500 years of active treatment. Also, unlike historic mining jobs in Minnesota, there is no guarantee from PolyMet and Twin Metals that these will be union jobs, leaving residents to wonder at the quality of wages and benefits provided.
Don’t we need these metals?
It’s true that our technologies have lead to an increase in demand for metals like copper and nickel. Copper is essential even in the construction of renewable energy infrastructure.
While some might believe this increase in demand along with the decrease in mining would lead to a shortage, this is not the case. Because copper is infinitely recyclable and modern technologies are becoming more efficient at this process, recycled copper is currently able to supplement the mined supply, and it’s been predicted that by 2042, recycled copper could make up a greater proportion of our supply than mined copper, even with increasing demand, as shown in the chart below.
Currently, the United States imports just over one third of their copper, with the rest being produced domestically. Most of that copper comes from Chile, Canada, and Mexico, all considered to be close allies.
Moreover, the PolyMet and Twin Metals projects would have little impact on the global supply of copper. Combined, these two mines together would produce 80,000 tons of copper annually, which would account for 0.3 percent of the 25.7 million tons of worldwide production projected by 2019 and just 5 percent of United States production. The U.S. currently has 45 million metric tons of copper in reserve, and worldwide reserves total 741 million metric tons , an equivalent to nearly 28 years of copper production at current rates.
Consider also that Apple has committed to using 100 percent recycled metals in their products, and are currently transitioning. As industry leaders, it is likely that once they make this move, other technology companies will follow, further reducing the demand for mined copper.
Why use the term “sulfide” mining?
It is true that the primary goal of these mines is not sulfides, but the rocks present in the sulfides. However, we feel it is important to use the term “sulfide mining” because we do not oppose the minerals mined, but the process by which these minerals are extracted. It is true that copper, nickel, cobalt, platinum, and other metals are necessary for our modern lives. That’s why the message of this film is not that we are concerned about copper or nickel mining, but the process by which these mines plan to access these metals.
In the process of sulfide mining, metals are extracted from a body of rock rich in sulfides. When the sulfur present in the rock is brought to the surface and exposed to air and water, a chemical reaction can occur which creates sulfuric acid. This acid, which is often used in car batteries, is toxic to aquatic life and in large quantities, can change the pH of the water, causing long-term impacts to aquatic ecosystems.
What about the jobs these mines provide?
Providing for our families is important. Mining has provided good, well-paying jobs for generations of Northern Minnesotans. But the jobs provided by these mines may not be as numerous or beneficial as in the past.
The number of jobs provided by these mines will be limited. PolyMet plans to hire about 360 permanent employees, and in their draft environmental impact statement predicted that 55 percent of their permanent jobs would be “non-local.” This number was revised several times coming down from 450. Twin Metals has had similar changes in their numbers, initially proposing 2,000 to 2,500 jobs. They later revised that number to 1,500 and most recently, proposed a total of 650 permanent jobs.
These 1,100 mining jobs, unlike many past mining jobs in Minnesota, have no guarantee of union representation. To date, PolyMet has signed no agreement with a union for future employment at the mine. United Steelworkers, one of the largest unions representing mining workers, has repeatedly criticized the anti-labor practices of Glencore, a major investor in the PolyMet project.
Twin Metals has also not committed to union jobs at the mine, stating that they will determine this “later in the project development effort.” Antofagasta, owner of Twin Metals, has historically been guilty of anti-union practices.
Another consideration is, of course, the looming threat of automation. Mining jobs are difficult and dangerous, making them ripe for automation. Self-driving ore carriers and robotic drills have already cut jobs in the industry. Some predictions state that 40 percent to -80 percent of mining jobs could be replaced with automation, with new mines being the most likely to see these replacements. And this isn’t far off. It’s predicted that mining automation will reach its peak in 10 to15 years.
What impacts would these mines have on human health?
A 2016 study by eight medical doctors outlined the grave health impacts these mines could have on the health of downstream communities specifically in Minnesota. The report notes that waste from these mines would include mercury, asbestos, arsenic, and heavy metals, which could leach into surrounding waterways and groundwater. Currently, one in 10 infants in the Lake Superior region are born with unsafe levels of mercury in their blood, and these mines would exacerbate the already high mercury levels in this region. The report goes on to describe the process by which sulfuric acid generated by the mine could be released into surrounding groundwater and leach even more heavy metals from the surrounding rock. The study also raises air pollution concerns, noting that often these types of mines release mineral fibers into the air, increasing the likelihood that nearby residents will develop respiratory issues. The report notes that current regulations do not address the need for a long-term health impacts assessment.
What evidence is there that these mines will pollute? Won’t Minnesota’s regulations protect us?
A 2006 study by a mining consultant found that 76 percent of 25 sulfide mine projects examined violate water quality standards. These mines have a tendency to pollute and the corporations that own PolyMet and Twin Metals, because they are located in other countries, have little vested interest in water quality for downstream communities.
Antofagasta, owner of Twin Metals, has had numerous spills at Los Pelambres, one of the other mines they own. The largest of these spills leaked 13,000 liters of copper concentrate into a nearby river. Antofagasta was also charged with violating their environmental permits at another mine.
Glencore, a majority investor in PolyMet, has a similarly troublesome environmental track record. In 2010, Glencore paid $780,000 in fines in relation to environmental breaches. Several organizations released a study finding that heavy metal contamination from a Glencore mine in Peru led to illnesses in nearby populations. In Australia, a Glencore-owned mine dumped 14,000 tons of waste rock in an insecure waste facility, releasing sulfuric dioxide into the atmosphere. Another Australian mine owned by Glencore has been found to be responsible for “potentially significant” lead pollution.
Sulfide mines in North America share a similar history. In Wisconsin, water tests in rivers near the Flambeau mine showed dangerous levels of copper and zinc 14 years after the operation shuttered. The Flambeau mine operated from 1993 to 1997. At Mount Polley, a mine in British Columbia, Canada, a dam similar to what PolyMet’s has proposed breached and 24 million cubic meters of mine waste spilled into nearby waterways. A 2016 study found several failures in compliance for the mine. At the Grouse Creek Mine in Idaho, which operated in the mid-1990s, cyanide from the facility’s tailing ponds leaked into the nearby Jordan Creek at levels exceeding the state’s aquatic life water quality criteria.
There is little evidence that the story in Minnesota will be different. Continued attacks on due process, such as the recent exchange of Superior National Forest land to PolyMet, which was included in the National Defense Spending Act, or the recent failed attempt to lower water-sulfate standards in Minnesota, demonstrate that lawmakers and corporations alike have done their best to circumvent the regulatory process.
What about the Eagle Mine in Michigan? I was told that mine is not polluting the environment.
The Eagle Mine in Michigan has been held by some to be a success story for sulfide mining. However, the Eagle Mine holds its own share of concern and controversy. The Eagle Mine has had contaminant exceedances every quarter of its operation since 2014, as well as regular exceedances in surface water quality near the site. These contaminants have included sulfate, nitrate, mercury, arsenic, and chloride. The Eagle Mine discharges its wastewater on the surface, allowing it to leak into groundwater and the nearby Yellow Dog and Salmon Trout rivers.
Because the mine has been in operation for less than four years, there has been little time for the impacts on the surrounding environment to become known. However, local groups have cited concerns of acid mine drainage and the impact the operation’s seismic blasts might have on surrounding wildlife.
Comparisons to PolyMet and Twin Metals often also fail to note that the Eagle Mine produces only 14,000 tons of copper per year and having an operating life of only eight years, is significantly smaller than the proposed projects in Minnesota. PolyMet would operate for 20 years and produce 36,000 tons annually, while Twin Metals would operate for “decades” and produce 44,000 tons annually.
The Eagle Mine also does not filter its air emissions, despite including this measure in their initial permit. Air emissions include heavy metals, mining vehicle exhaust, and heat exhaust. The mine also does not use union employees.