Is it a decision between jobs or the environment or is the technology there to protect both? 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.
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