Digging Mining’s Future

Digging Mining’s Future

The U of M seeks funding for a new initiative to change how Minnesota mines.

Thirty years ago, it looked as though mining was a dying industry in Minnesota. Although it’s never going to be the huge employer it once was, it’s proven to be remarkably durable and could even grow.

That’s why in the upcoming legislative session, the University of Minnesota will request $6.25 million for a new initiative that could change the way that Minnesota mining companies do their work. If funded, the Initiative for Sustainable Mining Solutions would develop applications, resources and expertise to assist short- and long-term research in mining technologies, and in the health and safety of northern Minnesota’s mining communities and environment.

Rod Bleifuss, an NRRI researcher, holds iron nuggets produced in a special furnace. NRRI is examining different processes and markets for using Minnesota taconite.

The Iron Range isn’t new territory for the U. The university’s most famous work in mining was done by Edward W. Davis. He conducted ground-breaking research on extracting and processing iron from taconite, which allowed the Iron Range economy to survive as the supply of high-quality ore ran out in the 1950s.

Brian Herman, the university’s vice president for research, says that the initiative would be “a continuation of that activity—an evolution of our experience and expertise.” As a land grant institution, Herman adds, part of the U of M’s mission is “helping to advance the assets and activities in the state of Minnesota.” That includes economic, environmental and health activities.

If the initiative is funded, the university’s Twin Cities campus would be working with the Natural Resources Research Institute (NRRI) at the University of Minnesota Duluth, one of the entities that helped craft the sustainable mining initiative. The metro campus would provide basic research on technology, health impacts and remediation; the NRRI, with its mining-specific experience, would move that research into specific practices.

So why is the university proposing this initiative now? One trigger could be the proposals by PolyMet and Duluth Metals to mine copper, nickel and other precious metals from the so-called Duluth Complex, a region east of the Iron Range. But initiative proponents suggest that that’s just part of the rationale.

“It’s a natural evolution of what should happen in a research situation,” NRRI director Rolf Weberg says. Mining itself, he adds, has been evolving into a more automated, less labor-driven industry. But “as our ability to take things up quickly has increased,” Weberg says, “our ability to stay abreast of the consequences of extraction has not kept up.”

The U of M and the NRRI would begin by focusing on what Weberg calls “characterization”—determining what else besides valuable ores and metals are in the ground, and examining mining’s effects on the environment.

For instance, iron ore can be found in sulfide deposits, which could potentially release sulfuric acid into nearby waters. But Weberg observes there appears to be “some level of buffering capacity in the strata that we have” in Minnesota. “There are carbonates and silicates in the rock, which they don’t have in the Rocky Mountains, where acid mine drainage is a significant issue.” One of the objectives of the “characterization” process could be to discover how that buffering works and how to scale it to understand the potential pollution “we need to address ahead of time,” he says.

Traditionally, the NRRI’s mining research has focused on “iterative improvement,” getting more iron out in a more economical fashion. It also has conducted research on the potential of nonferrous mining, which involves metals other than iron. The initiative funding, Weberg says, would allow the NRRI to move toward “an innovation approach” to address sulfate contamination of water and reduced energy use, among other issues.

One innovation that the NRRI has high hopes for: bacteria that would consume sulfate from mine wastewater —sulfate contamination of Minnesota’s waterways being the chief bone of contention for opponents of nonferrous mining. To harness these sulfate-eating microbes in a viable manner, the NRRI received $500,000 for the project as part of the U of M’s MnDRIVE Transdisciplinary Research Program. It was launched in 2013 to share university research with state industries. The proposed initiative would drive the U of M deeper into mining research.

Craig Pagel, president of the Duluth-based Iron Mining Association of Minnesota, doesn’t know the details of the study. But, Pagel says, “I see the work the university is proposing as one more extension of their applied science and economics creating solutions for Minnesota’s resources, whether it is for iron mining in northeastern Minnesota, medical research in conjunction with the Mayo Clinic or advances in agricultural sciences throughout the state—solutions that benefit all Minnesotans and the world.”

Both Weberg and Herman emphasize that the initiative would strive to provide unbiased science and data in the face of what Weberg calls a polarizing issue. Mining proponents argue that Minnesota would benefit economically from mining precious metals that have numerous industrial uses. Opponents contend, among other arguments, that Minnesota’s waters and lands have a greater long-term value.

“We are not the decision makers,” Weberg says, adding that “we are not supporting the mining industry any more than we’re supporting the environmental groups. Our role is balanced—to understand the questions and frame the questions from a broad, holistic approach.”

Herman says that the U of M is in a “unique position to convene all of the relative stakeholders, and use science-based approaches to guide and help create practical solutions that are facing mining.” Those stakeholders, he adds, include state agencies, Native Americans, environmental groups, mining and remediation industries.

Mining—particularly the nonferrous projects proposed for the Duluth Complex—is fraught with challenges. The battle’s been quiet lately, but undoubtedly it will escalate once again, when the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources releases its environmental impact statement on PolyMet’s proposed nonferrous mine. That’s expected to happen this spring.

The Initiative for Sustainable Mining Solutions won’t make mining less contentious. But if it comes to pass, it could provide common ground for the argument about the future of mining—and the future of northern Minnesota.

Gene Rebeck is TCB’s northern Minnesota correspondent.

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