Polymet and Sulfide Mining
April 13, 2006
My name is Elanne Palcich. I was born and raised on the Iron Range, and live in Chisholm. I am a retired teacher, and taught with the Virginia school district.
Last summer, I attended the Polymet hearing in Hoyt Lakes. I listened to the power point presentation, and came home with an EAW — over 200 pages worth.
And the first thing I learned is that, when the company gives a power point presentation, they only tell you what they want you to hear. So now I’ll tell you what I think you should hear.
“When sulfide ores are exposed to air
and moisture, a chemical reaction
occurs which produces sulfuric acid.
This sulfuric acid then leaches into
the watershed, killing all aquatic life.”
Polymet wants to start up a copper-nickel mine in northern Minnesota. Copper-nickel deposits are found in a band of sulfide
ores that extend basically between Hoyt Lakes and Babbitt. When sulfide ores are exposed to air and moisture, a chemical reaction occurs which produces sulfuric acid. This sulfuric acid then leaches into the watershed, killing all aquatic life.
The question is, can this sulfuric acid be neutralized? Existing plans call for reactive tailings (those containing sulfide) to be stored on plastic liners and layered with soil to prevent as much exposure to air and water as possible. The plastic liner contains drainage points, where the waste water is to be collected and treated before being discharged into the watershed.
In addition to the tailings, waste rock and pit walls may also contain sulfide ore.
Polymet’s current plan is to store its tailings for the first five years of plant operation while it performs something called humidity cell tests to try to determine how to neutralize the acid drainage. From what I can understand, these cell tests compact the tailings and add moisture to simulate what might happen under natural conditions.
My questions are: what happens if there’s acid drainage from the tailings during those five years of testing? And how does one control acid drainage from a pit?
Polymet’s rush to start operation before a plan for waste treatment is in place goes against state law. (The law says the waste must be understood before the mine is started.)
“No company is currently allowed to mine sulfide
ores in Wisconsin because no company has been
able to show that their current or past mining
operations in the U.S. or Canada have been free
of significant environmental damage.”
Other states are also facing problems with sulfide mining. No company is currently allowed to mine sulfide ores in Wisconsin because no company has been able to show that their current or past mining operations in the U.S. or Canada have been free of significant environmental damage. Evidently there have been problems with acid drainage leaking through the plastic liners.
Montana prohibits any mining that would require perpetual water treatment. Acid mine drainage from sulfide tailings can remain active for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years.
So, acid drainage is the number one problem with sulfide mining.
Problem number two is air emissions. The Polymet mine would be located just 20 miles south of the Boundary Waters and 50 miles southeast of Voyageurs National Park. These are Class I air quality areas. A concern is the creation of haze caused by plant and vehicle emissions. The specific requirements for permitting are to be negotiated with the MPCA and the Federal Land Managers. This is surprising to me, as I thought that air standards were just that — standards — not negotiated items.
Sulfuric acid mist is used in the plant process itself, in the extraction of metals from ore. There is some concern about seepage of sulfuric acid mist into the air, but wet scrubbers are supposed to control this problem.
The plant will also add to mercury deposition. Although mercury pollution stems from global sources, it’s a special problem for Minnesota because when the airborne mercury falls into water, it transforms into methylmercury, which is toxic. The Polymet plant borders a wilderness.
So that’s two problems — acid drainage and air emissions. Problem number three is that the development of the mine site will impact approximately 3015 acres of wildlife habitat, of which 1305 are wetlands. A total of 13 species of rare or sensitive plants have been identified in the area, as well as the threatened wood turtle. A variety of fish species will also be affected.
These environmental problems are further impacted by the location of adjoining projects, the combination of which will greatly contribute to air pollution, stress our water resources, and further fragment land for wildlife habitation. These projects are listed on the chart. I would like to point out that the Birch Lake project proposes to mine copper-nickel deposits underneath Birch Lake.
An important point to remember is that these mining companies are in a rush to begin mining during what they consider to be “a window of opportunity.” Demand from China and India, who have not yet started mining their own ore deposits, has driven prices to a peak level.
Polymet’s sulfide deposit contains not only copper and nickel, but the trace minerals platinum, palladium, cobalt, silver, and gold. Platinum is currently selling at around $986 an ounce, and over a 20 year period of mining, Polymet would stand to make $25 billion dollars. This money will basically leave our area. Mine operations are to be run on copper production, while nickel and the trace minerals would be extra profit.
I also want to mention that mining companies, including Polymet, are claiming competition in the global market, and are not committing to hiring union workers.
Others will be speaking on the wetlands exchange issue, so I will state my concerns briefly:
- One, Polymet is jumping ahead on this issue, too as the EIS is not yet out.
- Two, how can land in Floodwood which has been drained since 1916, and reached its own ecological balance, be an equivalent exchange for existing wetlands near the Boundary Waters? There is something inherently wrong with this whole process.
- Three, the exchange plan mentions the threat of peat mining, as a reason for protecting the Floodwood area. Of course peat mining is a threat! Why on earth would anybody consider destroying a bog for horticultural peat?
- Four, what looks good on paper doesn’t always translate so well into real life. How can one condense all of the interdynamics of a wetland onto a piece of paper? And how can we fix problems after the fact?
- Five, our political leaders don’t have time to comb through mountains of paperwork on every project, so they rely instead on company propaganda, getting stuck on words like jobs and taxes. I believe the age of ignorance is over. What worked in the 20th century is not going to work in the 21st. With world population at 6.5 billion and increasing, with increasing demands upon land and resources, we can no longer afford to bury our heads in the sand, or even in the wetlands. As a teacher I would say that knowledge is power. It is time for us to lead our leaders by providing them with information.
“Polymet’s projected mining life would be 20 years…
What will the landscape look like then? What legacy
will we leave for our children and our grandchildren?”
One hundred years ago, there were so many white pine covering northern Minnesota that it was said they could never all be logged. Yet in 20 years they were all gone. Today people say the same about our wetlands. But while the rest of the nation and the state are losing wetlands to urban sprawl, we’re losing our wetlands to uncontrolled and uncontrollable mining projects. I believe that the Polymet project in particular, with its potential for acid drainage, should be put on hold while we develop a slower, more sustainable future of growth (including lower impact manufacturing and tourism).
Polymet’s projected mining life would be 20 years. I would guess that most of us in this room will be here 20 years from now. What will the landscape look like then? What legacy will we leave for our children and our grandchildren?
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