For over 40 years, the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy has worked tirelessly to protect the right of communities to clean air, clean water, and access to public land for hunting, fishing, camping and hiking. Our organization is — and always has been — antipollution, not antimining.

We recognize the importance of nonferrous metals to a functioning economy, particularly one transitioning to cleaner energy. The recent tensions within the copper-nickel debate have obscured a fundamental truth: Most Minnesotans concerned about copper-nickel proposals are not antimining, antijobs or disdainful of hardworking people.

They simply want to know that any mineral development that does occur will not put their grandchildren’s clean water and health at risk.

Like the Star Tribune Editorial Board, we admire Gov. Mark Dayton’s dedication to making decisions based on the law, science and standards that protect Minnesotans (“Dayton’s timely stance on PolyMet,” Nov. 1). The governor is right to say that the PolyMet proposal should be permitted only if it shows that it meets environmental standards.

But as the Star Tribune noted, this is a “big if” and a complex question with high stakes for Minnesotans. What does it mean to have a mine that meets environmental standards in an industry that is so fraught with bad examples and that has so few good ones?

Minnesota has mined iron for a century, but copper-nickel mines are much riskier. They have an alarming history of leaving behind bankrupt mines with legacy pollution cleaned up with public dollars. Dayton toured one example, the Brohm mine in South Dakota, where publicly funded cleanup costs exceed $130 million and counting.

Even more alarming, catastrophic mine-waste dam collapses of the sort seen at the Mount Polley mine in Canada are on the rise. These failures destroy communities and rivers alike, and to us they are an unacceptable risk. Just last week, the United Nations Environment Programme urged countries around the world to move toward what they call a “zero risk objective” for mining.

The Mining Association of Canada, which includes industry giants such as ArcelorMittal and Rio Tinto, is incorporating recommendations from an expert panel that investigated the Mount Polley disaster into its published guidelines for responsible mining. PolyMet’s main investor, Glencore, and PolyMet’s primary engineering firm, Barr Engineering, are both members of the Mining Association of Canada and would therefore be aware of these guidelines.

We often hear from supporters of copper-nickel mining that “Minnesota has the best environmental laws in the world,” and that’s why we should mine here. But the political maelstrom around copper-nickel mining in Minnesota has obscured the growing movement in the mining industry toward better mine designs. Meanwhile, the mining industry elsewhere is learning and adapting.

If we let politics, not science, lead this debate, in a few years the mining industry in Canada could be responding to critics by saying, “If we don’t mine it here in Canada, they will just go to Minnesota where the standards are lower.” We can and must do better than that.

We believe PolyMet’s current proposal does not meet standards for responsible, world-class mining, especially safe mine-waste storage. Reducing the amount of water mixed with PolyMet’s mine waste could eliminate the risk of the most catastrophic impact that can happen at a mine site: a tailings dam collapse with massive flooding. This emerging industry standard also decreases (though it may not eliminate) the need for perpetual water treatment. The Canadian mining industry is well on its way to adopting this superior form of waste storage, yet PolyMet is not even considering it.

PolyMet still has the opportunity to prove that it can build a responsible, world-class mining operation. Needed changes include:

• Using the best available technology to store mine waste to eliminate the risk of a catastrophic dam collapse and reduce the amount of polluted water that requires treatment.

• Strong, upfront financial assurance to ensure that cleanup costs would be borne by the company, not taxpayers.

• Robust, independent water-quality monitoring to give the earliest possible indication of water contamination and strategies agreed to in advance as to what actions will be taken if pollution is detected.

• Convening an independent panel of third-party experts to review the mine plan on an ongoing basis and ensure safe operations.

• A recognition that communities downstream who depend on the St. Louis River and Lake Superior have valid concerns and deserve a seat at the table now, and throughout the life of the mine.

• A strategy for engaging these communities that provides a direct line of communication that is funded by the company.

• Renewable energy on-site that employs local labor and decreases reliance on coal-fired power.

The way forward on copper-nickel mining for Minnesota is to set aside politics and work toward science-based solutions. Minnesota can live up to the ideal that we have the “strongest standards in the world” as we make decisions about PolyMet, but only if we take actions that prove it.

 

Kathryn Hoffman is chief executive officer of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy.