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Getting the details behind copper-nickel mining in Minnesota

Proposed by PolyMet Mining, the NorthMet project would include a mine near Babbi1 / 2
The mine would be six miles south of Babbitt and the processing plant six miles 2 / 2

Mining for copper and nickel offers to create jobs, but can it be done without causing environmental harm affecting generations of Minnesotans?

That was part of the discussion during a Rosenmeier Center forum at Central Lakes College (CLC) in Brainerd Wednesday night. The topic was copper-nickel mining in the state’s Arrowhead, centered on the proposed PolyMet mine on what is now public land in Superior National Forest. It’s an issue that has gripped attention across the state with voices in favor of the economic development and others worried about potentially toxic repercussions.

The proposal represents the first copper-nickel-platinum group elements mining in Minnesota. The precious metals go into such things as computers, cellphones and cars.

Kathryn Hoffman, staff attorney with the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, said the proposed PolyMet mine represents the tip of the iceberg. Besides Canada-based PolyMet, other mining companies are exploring options in northern Minnesota.

More than 60 people attended the forum in Brainerd. The three public meetings on the proposed PolyMet mine drew thousands of people in Duluth, Aurora and St. Paul.

Presenters at the forum in Brainerd included Hoffman and two scientists from the Natural Resource Center at the University of Duluth — Donald Fosnacht, with a doctorate in metallurgical engineering, director for the Center for Applied Research and Technology Development; and George Hudak, with a doctorate in geology, associate director, Precambrian Research Center. No representatives were on the panel for the mining company.

PolyMet is proposing mining operations lasting about 20 years at the site. The area represents low-grade ore but a large tonnage. The proposed project area is 20 miles south of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The mine would be six miles south of Babbitt and the processing plant six miles north of Hoyt Lakes. PolyMet is the junior mining company with a major investor being the Swiss company Glencore.

Once mining operations are done, mechanical water treatment at the site is proposed for 200 years at the mine site and 500 years at the plant site. The state reported it’s unknown how long water treatment would be required other than to say long term.

The hard-rock mining involves ore containing sulfites, which can create acid drainage and issues with mercury. The PolyMet plan is to collect the water at the site and create barriers to keep it in.

Fosnacht pointed to the nearby Cuyuna Range, which was at the start of the iron-ore mining and the mine pit lakes now flourishing there.

The session at CLC provided an education in mineral deposits, mining operations and environmental issues.

Hudak said his job was easy, bragging about the geology and minerals 1.1 billion years old. He said the economic and job creation potential is enormous in what is being called the Duluth complex with deposits rivaling those of the iron-ore mining industry and with minerals on a world class scale.

If the mining was done, Hudak said it should meet very strict environmental standards. The minerals like to bond with sulfur and can create acidity in water. The question, Hudak said, is whether the risk can be mitigated to create this new industry. Fosnacht said in mining the site, low-sulfur rock will be stored on unlined space and high-sulfur rock will be on a lined area stored above ground for 11 years before it is put back into a pit 630 feet deep. By year 20, all the higher sulfur rock will be back in that pit with low sulfur rock on top. If needed limestone will be placed on top and the area saturated with water to create a wetland and a pit lake.

Fosnacht compared the proposed PolyMet mine to the Flambeau mine in Wisconsin. The site in the Arrowhead has very low sulfurs compared to Flambeau, he said.

“We think the technology is there for them to be able to achieve that but they have to do it in a correct manner,” Fosnacht said.

He said treatment at the site may decrease mercury going into the St. Louis River because it will be treating water coming from Hoyt Lakes that isn’t treated now. The key, Fosnacht said, is using the technology and routinely monitoring it.

Fosnacht pointed to the Flambeau mine in Wisconsin — now a park after a few years of active mining. He said there is now an active trout stream 30 yards from the site.

Fosnacht said the Flambeau mine controlled sulfate to a low level and reclamation procedures outlined for PolyMet appear similar.

“They appear to be successful at the Flambeau Mine,” Fosnacht said.

The PolyMet project is expected to create 360 jobs according to the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). Hoffman said after experts in the mining field are imported the site will create about 90 local hires. Fosnacht said other than the jobs at the mine, there may be other manufacturing jobs coming in because the raw materials are there.

Hoffman pointed to models indicating even after 200 years, the water will have made little improvement to reach state’s strict water quality standards. Liners covering huge areas at the site would have to be monitored and maintained against punctures by tree roots or burrowing animals.

Hoffman said the process to treat the water is complex, requiring multiple systems to work successfully and a mine in Michigan using a state-of-the-art reverse osmosis plant to do just that has already had more than 40 permit violations for not meeting water quality standards. Hoffman said regulations are only as good as the will of the regulators to enforce. He noted the U.S. Steel Minntac taconite mine was recently granted a permit to expand operations without meeting water quality requirements. The Department of Natural Resources, Hoffman said, is filling a tough balancing act of duel roles, as regulator and promoter of mineral extraction.

Recent data indicates how much water is moving through the site may be two to three times higher than the PolyMet model predicts, meaning pollutants could be carried faster and potentially in higher concentrations. It may mean the EIS has to be redone. Hudak said he was concerned after hearing that as well, noting concentrations from the mine also combine with what is in the natural environment.

At Wednesday’s forum, audience members asked what would happen if Duluth experienced another massive rain event such as the one that washed out road and bridges or if the mining company closed or declared bankruptcy.

Minnesota requires money be set aside, basically a damage deposit, in case a cleanup would be necessary. One of the questions the environmental group Mining Truth is asking is whether safeguards are in place when things go wrong. Hoffman said it wasn’t a question of if.

“So we need to talk about that now,” Hoffman said.

She said the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy wasn’t opposed to mining but companies bear a heavy burden to show they can mine safely.

“We don’t believe PolyMet has met it’s burden with this current proposal,” Hoffman said. She added the minerals won’t be moving to South Dakota so there is time to make sure the technology is there to mine safely.

In other states, taxpayers have paid millions for cleanups at former mining sites an issues of pollution such as $150 million for ongoing reclamation at the inactive underground Holden copper mine in Washington state.

Hudak said he is still making up his mind on the project but will support it providing it can do what the state requires, noting it allows for more stringent monitoring than happens in other parts of the world.

Fosnacht said the technology is there to do it but it would have to be routinely used. The state, Fosnacht said, would have to make sure the permit was clear and the company followed it. “I think that is the key thing,” he said. “I think Minnesota can do that.”

After the three public meetings on the PolyMet mine, Hudak said he was incredibly impressed with the civility on an issue that has people on either extreme as they listen to each other. It’s about education to make sure a proper decision is made and Hudak said it speaks well for a commitment to try to do this right.

“It actually makes me feel pretty darn good as a Minnesotan,” Hudak said.

Several people who attended praised the session.

“Fantastic, I was really impressed,” said Jean Gustafson, a Rosenmeier Board member from Crosby. Gustafson said the variety of view points was thorough with presenters able to boil down the scientific detail.

“I got a good impression of the situation the state has to face in making the right decision,” she said. “I grew up in Duluth and the beautiful landscape there and the rocks always attracted me and I want to make sure that beauty is there for my children and their children.”

The Rosenmeier Center sponsored the forum with co-sponsors in the Lakes Area League of Women Voters and The Center in Brainerd.

For more information on the proposed PolyMet project, sometimes referred to as the NorthMet project, go to where copies of the supplemental draft environmental impact statement and fact sheets are available. The document was created by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Forest Service.

Public comment is invited until 4:30 p.m. March 13 by email and mail.

RENEE RICHARDSON, senior reporter, may be reached at 855-5852 or Follow on Twitter at

Renee Richardson
Richardson is a Pacelli High School graduate from Austin, Minn., who earned an applied science degree from the University of Minnesota, Waseca, with an emphasis in horse management. She worked extensively in the resort industry. She received an associate’s degree from Central Lakes College, where she was editor of the Westbank Journal student newspaper, as well as a summer intern at the Dispatch. She graduated from St. Cloud State University summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in mass communications and interned at the St. Cloud Times covering business while attending SCSU. She's been with the Brainerd Dispatch since 1996.
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