Hoyt Lakes land-sale plan erupting into clash of titans
By Ron Way, MinnPost.com | Thursday, Aug. 14, 2008
A plan by Sen. Amy Klobuchar to quietly and quickly push legislation allowing the sale of federal land near Hoyt Lakes, Minn., to a Canadian company to expedite its plans to mine for copper, nickel and other metals is erupting into a high-stakes controversy that could rival the gaping open pit that the land sale would bring.
"This is just plain bad public policy," said Brian Pasko of the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness. Pasko is leading a team of local and national environmental groups that are hurriedly organizing to go all out to defeat Klobuchar's plan.
The bill by Klobuchar and a House companion by another Minnesota DFLer, Rep. James Oberstar of Chisholm, would allow the sale of 6,700 acres of U.S. Forest Service land to Vancouver-based PolyMet Mining Corp., a move that would circumvent a more transparent — and time-consuming — land-exchange process.
Both sides see the fight, which will begin in earnest when Congress convenes early in September, as critical.
Mine seen as economic boost to area
PolyMet needs the land to keep plans moving to begin mining operations as soon as it receives state permits, possibly early next year. The company says hundreds of construction jobs and 400 permanent jobs would come with the $380 million mine, something that's seen as giving a boost to a Northeast Minnesota economy wracked by a downturn in logging and, even, a historic falloff in iron-mining jobs.
Environmental advocates worry about the potential for deadly sulfides from the mines, something they say has been the unwanted stepchild of every similar mine in the world.
PolyMet is the first of several companies poised to begin mining operations in Minnesota, and so what happens with it is seen as a "template" for government decision-making to follow.
Sen. Amy KlobucharBecause Klobuchar would seek to push her bill in an abbreviated congressional session in September, the likely strategy is to skip public hearings and attach it as an amendment to another bill that's expected to move. One candidate is the Omnibus Lands Bill by Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., even though Bingaman has said he prefers no amendments.
Public hearings not ruled out
Klobuchar spokesman Lee Sheehy said the senator has not ruled out public hearings. He said the bill would authorize a land sale only after the state's environmental impact statement process is completed and all permits are received; Sheehy also said proceeds from the sale must be used to acquire other comparable lands to be added to the Superior National Forest.
As is typical in Northeast Minnesota and other areas of mineralization, land ownership is severed between subsurface and surface. In this case, PolyMet owns the subsurface, where the minerals are, but federal ownership of the surface would prevent an open pit mine that PolyMet says is needed (other copper-nickel mines in the area are expected to be mostly underground).
Pasko says the established procedure for resolving such issues is a land exchange in which the company would acquire comparable land elsewhere in the region and donate it to the Forest Service. But that would take two or more years to accomplish, which the company sees as adding unnecessarily to the three years and $15 million it's already spent on the environmental impact statement process (the long delayed environmental report is expected in late September).
So it's political muscle time, once again pitting Iron Range DFLers and allied unions against other Democrats and a well-organized and well-funded environmental community that has lots of friends in Congress and among Twin Cities DFLers. The last time the political titans clashed in Washington was over legislation in the 1960s and 1970s that established the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, and political wounds from those celebrated fights are still being licked.
Sen. Norm Coleman Both senators support bill
"You can't get elected to office up here if you're opposed to mining," said Ely outfitter Steve Paragis. Indeed, Republican Sen. Norm Coleman has signed onto Klobuchar's bill, and earlier his DFL rival in this fall's election, Al Franken, reportedly told the Mesabi Daily News of Virginia, Minn., that he wasn't seeking endorsement from the Sierra Club, long seen as a perpetual critic of most industrial activity that the Northeast region holds dear.
Sheehy said that the Oberstar and Klobuchar land-sale legislation was drafted with the full support of Northeastern Minnesota politicians. That would include such heavyweights as state Sen. Tom Bakk of Cook, chair of the Senate Tax Committee, and House Majority Leader Tony Sertich of Chisholm.
PolyMet would operate the first of what is expected to be several large mines that would extract low quantities of copper, nickel, and other precious metals including cobalt, platinum, palladium and gold from rock deep below the surface along a narrow strip in what's called the "Duluth Complex" of St. Louis and Lake counties in Minnesota's Arrowhead region.
Less than 1 percent of the mineralized areas contain metals of economic value, which means that 99 percent of the rock removed would be stored in tailings mounds. Unlike taconite tailings (by comparison, about 75 percent of rock removed for taconite is waste to be stored above ground), the waste from copper-nickel contains sulfides that combine with water and air to form sulfuric acid that's deadly to fish and other aquatic life.
Sulfides come with the minerals
Minerals in the ore-bearing rock attach to sulfides, so to remove the minerals means the sulfides come along with it.
Frank Ongaro, executive director of MiningMinnesota, a pro-mining group, said that 4 billion tons of ore lie in the Duluth Complex region, meaning that copper-nickel mining could be around for a very long time — and meaning also that massive quantities of sulfide rock would be piled across the region posing broad environmental threats.
Environmental advocates note that while mining companies would leave upon exhaustion of mining operations, the tailings would remain forever with sulfuric acid leaching into surface waterways.
After PolyMet, the next likely mining operation would be by Spokane-based Franconia Minerals, whose planned underground mine at Birch Lake a few miles north and east is seen as employing nearly 600.
Seen as threat to the watershed
But it's also seen as posing a threat to the watershed that drains into the BWCA, something that is especially worrisome to Pasko at Friends of the BWCA and to property owners on White Iron lake next to the BWCA that is fed by Birch Lake (PolyMet's operations are in the watershed that drains to Lake Superior via the St. Louis River).
In fact, Pasko said, there are several copper-nickel exploratory drill holes within a quarter mile of the famous canoe wilderness.
The watchword by mining advocates, environmental advocates, state regulatory officials and political leaders is to make certain that copper-nickel sulfide mining "is done right."
"If it cannot be done right it shouldn't be done at all," Bakk has said.
The question that everyone involved will be debating is exactly what is meant by "doing it right"?
Hope, and fears, on the Range
As a new Iron Range mining venture edges closer to reality, environmentalists warn of water pollution.
By LARRY OAKES, Star Tribune
Last update: October 18, 2008 - 8:53 PM
HOYT LAKES, MINN. - After years of hard times for Minnesota's Iron Range, a Canadian corporation is offering a tantalizing mix of promises.
PolyMet Mining is planning a $600 million construction project on the site of a bankrupt taconite mine in Hoyt Lakes. The project would bring more than $80 million annually in tax revenue and 400 jobs in a lucrative new vein of mining -- for copper, nickel, cobalt, platinum and even gold.
But as Iron Range politicians plan for a prosperous leap out of the region's iron age, environmentalists are urging the state to reject nonferrous mining as too dangerous to lakes and rivers. They say metallic sulfide ore of the type that PolyMet and several other companies hope to mine has a notorious history. When it's exposed to air and water, it leaches sulfuric acid and toxic metals into nearby watersheds, poisoning wildlife.
The well-known phenomenon, called "acid mine drainage," can appear decades after companies have gone. Several abandoned mines in the West are now federal Superfund sites, with taxpayers footing the bill for cleanup and perpetual water treatment. Butte, Mont., was left with a pit lake so acidic that 340 migrating snow geese died after landing there in 1995.
Sulfide mining in Wisconsin caused so much controversy that in 1997 the state outlawed it unless a company can cite an example of a North American sulfide mine that operated 10 years without polluting ground or surface water, and one mothballed 10 years without leaching such pollution.
No company has tried to mine known deposits of sulfide ore in Wisconsin since such proof was made a requirement. "They're boring holes all over the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and in northern Minnesota, but no one is doing it here," said Philip Fauble, mining coordinator for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
Impact study due
Supporters of nonferrous mining for Minnesota say sulfur concentrations are lower here than in many places and are less apt to produce acid mine drainage.
PolyMet also says it will use some of the cleanest technology available to process the ore and manage the waste rock. The innovations include reducing ore in an enclosed "autoclave," an industrial pressure cooker that will consume much of the sulfur as fuel and produce very low emissions compared with old-technology smelters.
Waste rock with the potential to produce acid will be reburied and landscaped atop liners designed to catch runoff and divert it for treatment. The company also agreed to set up "bankruptcy proof" reclamation funds for water treatment and other potential cleanup costs.
"The ultimate goal of PolyMet's approach is to have a minimum impact on the environment and to protect our air and water resources," said LaTisha Gietzen, vice president of public, government and environmental affairs.
The company has spent more than $40 million so far proving the feasibility of mining the 800-foot-deep ore formation that geologists call the "Duluth Complex." About $15 million of that has gone toward a three-year environmental review coordinated by state, federal and tribal regulators who are working to complete a draft environmental impact statement as soon as this month.
Next: 45 days of comments
Publication of the environmental impact statement will trigger a 45-day comment period, after which the state will consider whether to issue mining permits to PolyMet.
Among the steps taken by the team of 25 experts working on the study was to visit sulfide mines in Ontario, where the climate and hydrology are similar to Hoyt Lake, and a mine in Nevada that is using an autoclave, said Stuart Arkley, coordinator of the review for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
"PolyMet is proposing applying relatively new technology to a relatively low-grade ore body, so there isn't a lot out there to compare it to," he said.
Arkley said that, despite the diligence of PolyMet and the regulators, the public should not expect a benign mine.
"There's no such thing as an industrial site that doesn't cause some level of pollution, some level of impact," he said."
Environmental groups are considering legal action to block or at least alter the project. Last month, the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy wrote the DNR that it would be illegal under the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act to permit the project without a thorough analysis of the feasibility of mining the ore underground rather than in an open pit. The organization said an underground mine would have a smaller footprint, and it warned that it would take "appropriate steps" to make sure that option is fully analyzed.
While the DNR has not formally responded, Gietzen of PolyMet and Arkley of the DNR said in e-mails that the underground option had been analyzed and so far doesn't appear feasible, in large part because the ore deposit comes within feet of the surface.
'Fear factor' debated
PolyMet's promises have made a believer out of Hoyt Lakes Mayor Marlene Pospeck, who watched 1,400 taconite miners lose their jobs when LTV Steel Mining Co. went bankrupt in 2001.
"The technology they plan to use is nothing like the methods that caused problems elsewhere," Pospeck said.
Iron Range legislators also have hailed the project, and in Congress, Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Rep. Jim Oberstar introduced bills that would allow the Superior National Forest to sell PolyMet 6,700 acres.
Democrats Klobuchar and Oberstar say that the legislation, requested by the Forest Service, would be good for the environment because the land has been mined and logged over, and the Forest Service would use the proceeds from the sale to buy better land. In an interview, Oberstar said that as long as state and federal regulators determine the ore can be mined safely, the project should proceed.
Opponents say politicians are too focused on the promised benefits of the project and not concerned enough about what Minnesota could lose.
Technology proving grounds
The Sierra Club, Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy and other groups argue that sulfide mining's history is too disastrous to allow any state watersheds to be used as proving grounds for new technology.
While any discharges from PolyMet would drain through the St. Louis River watershed to Lake Superior, other companies are test-drilling on sites that would drain through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness to the Rainy River.
"The BWCA and the Superior National Forest cannot be used as guinea pigs," and John Doberstein of Two Harbors, chairman of the Mining Without Harm Campaign for the Sierra Club's North Star Chapter.
Larry Oakes • 218-727-7344
Legislation would force rules on copper mines
By: John Myers , Duluth News Tribune, 2/18/09
Minnesota lawmakers plan Thursday to introduce legislation that would establish new rules for how copper mines would operate in the state, including how they would handle environmental issues after the mines close.
The rules would prohibit the state Department of Natural Resources from issuing permits for mines if long-term plans foresee ongoing water-treatment issues after the operations close. At particular issue is acid runoff caused when high-sulfur rock is exposed to air and water in the mining process.
“Everyone wants jobs, especially these days. And if they can do it right, there will be [copper mining] jobs,” said Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul. “But this is a different kind of mining. When water runs off iron ore mines, you get rust. When water runs off copper mines, you get sulfuric acid.”
The new rules also would require that money be set aside before operations begin to cover all possible costs of closing mines and restoring any environmental damage caused by mining and processing.
Frank Ongaro, executive director of Mining Minnesota, a coalition of copper-mining ventures, said some of the elements in the legislation, such as requiring financial assurances for mine closure, already exist in state rules. But he said the requirement prohibiting ongoing treatment will kill any copper mine proposal.
“We’re extremely disappointed in this legislation,” Ongaro said.
Ongaro said the Legislature should stay out of the issue and allow state agencies to enforce existing laws and rules.
“No additional restrictions are necessary,” Ongaro said.
Supporters of the legislation, including the Friends of the Boundary Waters and the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, say the rules aren’t a moratorium on copper mining but require that any mines operate responsibly without leaving a polluted legacy.
“Wisconsin has a law that’s an effective moratorium on this kind of mine. And there are some environmental groups in Minnesota that would like us to do that. But we aren’t going that far,” Hausman said. “We’re just saying taxpayers will not be left holding the bag for millions of dollars of cleanup long after the company is gone.”
While the legislation would affect any development for copper or so-called non-ferrous mining, its first target is the PolyMet mine and processing plant.
PolyMet proposes to invest $600 million in the project that would mine near Babbitt and process the copper, nickel and other precious metals at the site of the former LTV Steel Mining Co. taconite plant near Hoyt Lakes. The operation would employ about 400 people for the 30-year life of the mine and hundreds more during construction. It would be Minnesota’s first industrial copper mine.
While at least four other ventures are considering copper mining plans, only PolyMet has advanced well into the environmental review process. The company hopes to begin operations next year.
The state DNR and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have conducted a joint draft environmental review of the PolyMet proposal that was due last year but still has not been released. The draft has been delayed as regulators seek more detail on how the company will deal with lost wetlands, mine waste and acid runoff.
Even after the review is complete, the company still must apply for specific permits to mine, as well as air and water pollution permits.
A PolyMet spokeswoman could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
While iron-ore mining has generally avoided environmental controversy, conservation groups are sounding warnings about copper mining. Because copper is locked in rock that is usually high in sulfur, that sulfur often is released when it is exposed to air and water. That acidic runoff can kill organisms in streams and has been a problem at many of the world’s copper mines through history.
But PolyMet officials say that won’t be a problem at their mine because sulfur concentrations are so low. Moreover, the company plans to store waste rock on special membranes to capture any runoff. The company also plans to treat water as it leaves the mine.
While the company holds mineral rights to the land where the mine is proposed, it does not actually own the land. The U.S. Forest Service still has the title to the property. PolyMet has been negotiating to buy private land in the vicinity and then trade that land to the Forest Service. But that process is slow because it involves dozens of other private landowners and could take months or to complete, said Jim Sanders, supervisor of the Superior National Forest.
PolyMet also has said it has considered legal action against the Forest Service but so far has not pursued that option. Legislation in Congress to allow the Forest Service to sell the land directly to PolyMet has not advanced.
PolyMet environmental impact statement made public
The statement, more than four years in the making, aims to explain how the proposed PolyMet “NorthMet” copper mine, the state's first copper mine, and processing center could operate within state and federal environmental rules and regulations.
By: John Myers, Duluth News Tribune, Published October 28 2009
Minnesota’s first copper mine is a step closer to reality this morning after the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released a long-awaited environmental review to the public.
The draft environmental impact statement, more than four years in the making, aims to explain how the proposed PolyMet “NorthMet” copper mine and processing center could operate within state and federal environmental rules and regulations.
The environmental report is open to public comments before the DNR and Corps make finishing touches. The company then must apply for and obtain permits for water and air pollution and to dig a mine at the site.
PolyMet is proposing Minnesota’s first copper mine that also would produce nickel, platinum and other valuable metals. The site of the proposed open-pit mine is near Babbitt, while the company would use the former LTV Steel taconite plant near Hoyt Lakes as a processing center.
The $600 million project would create 400 or more jobs for more than 20 years, digging and processing billions of dollars of high-value minerals. The project is seen as a critical step toward diversifying the Iron Range’s dependence on iron-ore mining and is the first of what could be a half-dozen or more copper mines stretching from the Ely area to Aitkin County.
But several environmental groups, tribal agencies, Northland residents and even the federal Environmental Protection Agency have been critical of the proposal because of the long history of pollution at other copper mines worldwide.
Opponents say sulfuric acid runoff, which occurs when sulfur-bearing rocks are exposed to air and water, could damage waterways in the area for centuries to come. Other concerns include wetland and habitat loss and an increase in toxic mercury in local waters.
Company officials say, and the environmental impact statement proposes, that the rock in the proposed mine area is unusually low in sulfur for a copper deposit. They also contend that they can use new technology to minimize acid runoff and treat any that occurs.
The draft environmental impact statement, a review of all the possible environmental issues surrounding the project, is considered critical because it not only sets up the scenario for how PolyMet may move forward but is expected to set precedent for a half-dozen or more additional copper mine proposals possible in coming years from Babbitt to Aitkin County.
After public comments and revisions by the DNR and Corps of Engineers, the environmental review will become final and the company is expected to apply for permits to mine and to create air and water pollution.
In addition, PolyMet, while it owns mineral rights to the mine site, still does not own the property where the mine would be located. The company is in the process of a land trade with the U.S. Forest Service. But the company must first secure an equal value of private land within the Superior National Forest to trade for the mine. That could take many more months.
•The draft environmental impact statement report on the proposed PolyMet copper mine can be seen at the DNR Web site.
•Public comments will be accepted by the DNR and Corps of Engineers beginning Monday. It’s not yet clear how long comments will be accepted.
For more information, contact Stuart Arkley, EIS Project Manager, Minnesota DNR, 500 Lafayette Rd., St. Paul, MN, 55155-4025; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call (651) 259-5089. Be sure to include "NorthMet" in the subject line of e-mails.
NE Minn. copper-nickel deposit's estimated size grows
by Dan Kraker, Minnesota Public Radio
December 4, 2012
DULUTH, Minn. — A huge copper-nickel mine proposed for just south of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area has again increased the estimate of minerals at the site.
Twin Metals is one of several companies exploring for copper, nickel and precious metals in the Duluth complex in northern Minnesota. The area is believed to be the richest untapped deposit of these minerals in the world.
Twin Metals is the second furthest along in developing a mine proposal, after PolyMet. This new report shows a 19 percent increase in estimated minerals compared to its last filing in June, said Bob McFarlin, Twin Metals' vice president of public and government affairs.
"The pattern is the same, and that is, that Minnesota's resource, the more we learn about it, the greater the magnitude," he said.
The deposit is enough to mine for over a century, McFarlin said.
"The mineral resource of Minnesota for copper, nickel, platinum, palladium and gold, these strategic metals, is of world-class magnitude, and just presents a tremendous economic opportunity for the state," he said.
It will take Twin Metals another year or two to develop a mine plan of operation to present to state and federal regulators, McFarlin said. That will then trigger the environmental review process, which McFarlin estimates will take another seven to 10 years.
Twin Metals is co-owned by Toronto-based Duluth Metals and the Chilean mining giant Antofagasta.
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