Lawmakers to mull restrictions on sulfide miningby Bob Kelleher, Minnesota Public Radio
The fight is on over sulfide metals mining in northern Minnesota. A bill introduced at the Capitol today could put new restrictions on mining for metals like copper and nickel.
Duluth, Minn. — The proposal is intended to prevent the kind of expensive and long-lasting pollution that has accompanied metals mining in some western states. But mining interests say the bill would kill any chance of the new mines now under consideration in Minnesota.
The bill would greatly strengthen both financial and pollution requirements before a sulfide-type mine opens in Minnesota. There are several potential mines planned for metals like copper, nickel and gold. They are all found in rock that also holds sulfide minerals.
Sulfides can turn to sulfuric acid, and acid pollution has historically been an environmental nightmare for some western states.
Depending on who you talk to, the legislation is either a necessary step to hold mining companies accountable, or an underhanded move by environmental groups to kill the projects before they start.
"We don't want to prohibit sulfide mining in Minnesota," said state Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, the chief author of the bill.
"If we do it here, we want to assure that it's done right, and that, should there be mistakes, that the taxpayers don't end up paying for it after the mining company is gone or bankrupt," Hausman said.
That's happened frequently, she says, in states like Montana, where a closed mine left the state with $30 million in cleanup costs.
"When we do it in Minnesota, we want to be sure they do it right, and that they post financial assurance mechanisms," said Hausman.
The bill puts strict limits on some of the practices expected in PolyMet's proposed precious metals mine near Hoyt Lakes. Canada-based PolyMet Mining is the first among several companies hoping to tap a long band of minerals from the Iron Range to central Minnesota.
PolyMet proposes covering waste piles with waterproof liners, and treating runoff from those piles even after the project closes.
That practice, dubbed "perpetual water treatment," would be banned under the proposed legislation, according to Greg Seitz, with the environmental group Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness.
"It's really hard to predict just how long 'perpetual' is going to be, how much of a problem acid mine drainage is going to be, and how much it's going to cost to pay for that," said Seitz. "It's just been proven over the country, all over the world, that if you allow perpetual treatment plans, it's really -- it's a gamble."
PolyMet officials say their $600 million mining project could create 400 permanent jobs. An environmental impact statement is expected soon. Spokeswoman LaTisha Gietzen says PolyMet has spent more than four years and $20 million on environmental studies.
"Really taking the time and effort to develop a project that can be implemented with very little impact to the environment, basically coming in now with this legislation at the 11th hour," said Gietzen.
There are several projects lined up behind PolyMet, including an underground mine planned by Franconia Minerals, based in Spokane, Wash.
John Ongaro heads the trade group Mining Minnesota. Ongaro says the bill would kill Minnesota's copper-nickel industry before it starts -- taking with it millions of dollars in investments, jobs, and taxes.
Ongaro says the metals will be mined somewhere, and probably in places with much weaker regulations than in Minnesota.
"Demand isn't going away. These metals will be produced," said Ongaro. "Eighty percent of copper production globally, is still done with a smelter, polluting our air."
PolyMet's plans include a closed extraction process that creates no air pollution. Ongaro says Minnesota already has sufficient safeguards in place to do this kind of mining safely.
"The regulatory agencies in Minnesota have comprehensive rules and statutes -- probably better than any other state in the country -- to make sure that mining companies, or any other industry, is doing what's necessary to meet air quality standards, water quality standards, and make sure that the companies have enough financial obligation on the books to meet any reclamation or remediation after closure," said Ongaro.
But bill sponsor Rep. Alice Hausman says that's not true -- she says Minnesota's pollution and financial requirements are still too weak for sulfuric mining.
A companion bill has been filed in the Senate.
- All Things Considered, 02/19/2009, 5:15 p.m.