Lawmakers to weigh mining jobs against sulfuric acidby Bob Kelleher, Minnesota Public Radio
Minnesota's prospects for expanding the mining industry get a hearing before state lawmakers Friday afternoon. Legislators will weigh the benefits of large scale mining for gold and other metals against predictions of dire environmental consequences.
St. Paul, Minn. — Plans are underway to mine metals like copper and nickel in northeast Minnesota. Those efforts will take center stage at the hearing.
Opponents worry about long term environmental damages, such as acid leaching from old mine sites and waste piles.
DFL Representative Jean Wagenius of Minneapolis will co-chair the hearing. She said she wants to hear how the state holds mining companies accountable for potential environmental damages.
"We want to make sure that there's money in the bank if a company goes bankrupt and leaves the state with a mess - and leaves taxpayers with a mess," Wagenius said.
That could be vital if critic's worse fears about non-ferrous mining play true. Gold and copper mines have created long term pollution nightmares in western states and Canada.
Wagenius said her concerns come from bitter experience.
"Actually it comes out of my work on closed landfills. The state has spent, I believe, $199 million cleaning up closed landfills. So we want to make sure that that pattern does not repeat," she said.
Some of the strongest criticism is expected from Tom Power with the University of Montana. He co-authored a report on mining's economics for two environmental groups. Power said mining's impact on Minnesota's economy was generally overstated.
The leading proposal from Vancouver, Canada-based PolyMet Mining could create 470 direct jobs. That would be about 10 percent of Minnesota's mining workforce. Even if all the new proposals come to life, Power said total mining employment would be only a blip in the state economy.
"Even within these three Iron Range counties, the contribution it's never going to bring back the employment levels that we saw at the beginning of the '80s, and certainly the employment levels that we saw in the '40s or '50s," he said.
Power said that small impact has to be weighed against the social costs of downturns in the volatile mining industry and potential environmental damage.
Mining for these kinds of metals is a big concern for groups such as the Sierra Club, the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy and others. It is often called sulfuric mining, because the target metals are found in ore that also holds sulfur. Exposure to air and water can produce sulfuric acids that can leach out. Acid drainage is a huge problem at abandoned mines in western states and Canada.
But proponents say that doesn't have to happen, and the mining can provide important metals and jobs.
DFL Senator Ellen Anderson of St. Paul co-chairs the hearing. Anderson said she expects a fair airing of the issues.
"I want to hear from both sides. I mean, I want to hear from the environmental community how they think we can provide the metals that we need for our cell phones and our computers, in an environmentally sustainable way," Anderson said.
"And I want to hear from the mining industry how they can provide those metals for us in an environmentally sustainable way. And, I hope that there's a win-win, where we can provide support for an industry, but an industry that supports our environment and supports our taxpayers," she said.
Not everyone welcomed the hearing. Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, helped expand today's presentations to include testimony on the benefits of mining.
"This meeting shouldn't have even taken place," Rukavina said. "You know, it was nothing but a dog and pony show as far as I'm concerned. But the fact of the matter is that it is taking place and we wanted a fair hearing where there's both sides being presented."
Rukavina said the state's watchdog agencies already have the tools to make sure the new mining doesn't leave a dangerous acidic legacy. They can force the companies to put up cash for cleanup should the mining companies go belly up.
"If those folks had done their homework they'd see that these laws are already being implemented by rule by both the Pollution Control Agency and the Department of Natural Resources," Rukavina said. This is a whole new concept with whole new regulations that are already in place."
The hearing at the Capitol begins at 12:30.
- Morning Edition, 01/25/2008, 7:25 a.m.