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Heat On The Range
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Heat On The Range

It’s too early for most of us to form a rock-solid opinion on nonferrous mining. Too much remains unclear.

In June, West Duluth’s Clyde Iron Works—a heavy-equipment factory repurposed as a restaurant and event space—was the venue for a talk on the hottest topic on the Iron Range.

Thomas Power, research professor of economics at the University of Montana, had come to town to discuss copper mining—what proponents call nonferrous mining and opponents label sulfide mining. It also has been termed a potential boon for an Iron Range in need of jobs and a potential disaster for its environment.

Power is a copper mining skeptic. Mining can bring prosperity to a region rich in natural resources. But he also argues that just as businesses make hard-nosed cost-benefit analyses, so should governments. If a company thinks opening a mine won’t pay, it won’t go forward. Likewise, if the mine’s benefits to a region don’t look as though they’re going to be worth the other costs, then government shouldn’t OK it. To Power, the costs of copper mining historically have outweighed the advantages of job creation.

Besides, he argued, copper mine jobs are often short-lived. Elsewhere in the country, mines have depended primarily on world prices. When prices decline, mines trim back or shut down.

Minnesota is facing this issue now; by the end of summer, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the U.S. Forest Service plan to release a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) on a metal mining project on the Range.

PolyMet Mining, a Canadian company’s subsidiary, controls the 4,300-acre NorthMet ore body between Babbitt and Hoyt Lakes through a mineral lease, and owns the former LTV taconite-processing plant nearby. It’s not digging for iron, thus the term nonferrous. PolyMet says that the mine would create more than 300 new jobs. And despite the picture that many outside the Range might have, mining jobs do pay well—better than most of the area’s tourism jobs.

Those opposed to the project use the term sulfide mining because the metals would be extracted from sulfur ores. Environmental groups, Indian tribes, and many businesses that depend on tourism and clean water in the Superior National Forest and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area fear that sulfur leaching from the mines will irrevocably damage the area’s lakes and streams. And tourism shouldn’t be discounted as an economic driver. According to Aaron Klemz, communications director for the Minneapolis-based advocacy group Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, Superior National Forest contributes $500 million annually to the state economy.

(It’s also worth noting that the new mining jobs might not affect the Range’s employment picture much. These aren’t general labor jobs, but high-skill, tech-savvy positions. Not many people who live in the area qualify for them.)

LaTisha Gietzen, PolyMet Mining’s vice president of public, governmental, and environmental affairs in Hoyt Lakes, believes that opponents’ concerns are overstated. “Our deposit is called a disseminated sulfur deposit, which means that it’s very low in sulfur,” Gietzen says. “The vast majority of our [potential] waste rock doesn’t even have enough sulfur to generate acid, despite what you hear.” PolyMet’s business plan would include a detailed description of sulfur containment and land remediation plans. The company also would have to provide “financial assurance,” perhaps through a trust fund or surety bond, which would cover any future environmental problems, thus not leaving taxpayers on the hook.

Gietzen also disputes Power’s argument, because it’s based primarily on copper mining. She notes that PolyMet also would be mining for nickel, platinum, palladium, gold, and cobalt. Metal prices do go up and down, but diversified metals mean more stability. PolyMet, she says, isn’t tied “to one metal and one [commodity] cycle.”

That said, permitting is a ways away. Assuming the draft EIS is released this summer, there will be a public comment period, followed by revisions; a final EIS will be released in 2014. Once the state and federal environmental reviews are completed, mining and other permits could follow. But that probably wouldn’t mean actual mining would begin—Indian tribal bands that harvest wild rice in the area and environmental groups would likely seek to block it in the court. Opponents can point to the Flambeau mine near Ladysmith in northern Wisconsin. The open-pit copper and silver mine operated from 1993 to 1997. Even with mining company Kennecott spending millions in reclamation over the past 15 years, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources recently found significant amounts of toxic substances in nearby water.

The upshot: Though the rhetoric rages on the Range, it’s a bit early for those among us who are neither adamantly pro- nor anti-mining to have an opinion. There’s simply too much we don’t yet know.

This isn’t merely a Range issue: It’s a state issue. Mining plays a significant role in Minnesota’s economy; a healthy environment’s role is at least equally important. The long-term costs might well outweigh short-term benefits.

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