Minnesota stands at a crossroads as we consider a permit for PolyMet’s proposed copper-nickel mine. We are being asked to permit an entirely new industry with a long history of ecological and financial disaster. Other countries, states and provinces are learning from recent disasters and changing their policies to improve how mining companies store their waste. Experts hired by the state of Minnesota have warned the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) for years to learn from those disasters as well.
Unfortunately, the draft PolyMet permit to mine continues to allow the company to store mine waste in a dangerous, outdated way that puts people and water downstream at risk.
The Star Tribune Editorial Board praised the public process for the draft permit for the PolyMet mine proposal (“PolyMet process is setting a high bar,” Jan. 15). As a group that represents thousands of Minnesotans who care about clean air and water, we agree that the environmental review process has allowed ample opportunity for public engagement so far. But this process will mean nothing if regulators don’t listen to the public and their own experts. It will all have been for naught.
PolyMet made promises to which it should now be held. PolyMet CEO Jon Cherry promised to “meet or exceed regulatory standards and industry best practices,” but the DNR’s draft permit fails this test. The most dangerous part of PolyMet’s proposed mine is a 252-foot earthen dam holding back billions of gallons of mine waste and polluted water. After tragedies at the Mount Polley and Samarco mines, where similar dams burst in 2014 and 2015, the mining industry began rapidly moving away from this outdated approach and implementing important safeguards.
The expert report on the causes of the Mount Polley disaster spurred changes to industry best practices for storing mine waste. PolyMet’s plan described in the DNR draft permit does not use the best available technology, and it is not consistent with industry best practices.
It is no comfort to Minnesotans that PolyMet executives have “nary a ripple of complaint” about the DNR’s draft permit for their sulfide mine proposal. It speaks volumes that the company’s executives are so pleased with it. PolyMet has never operated a mine and has strongly hinted that it may sell its interest in the mine if it is permitted. If PolyMet gets a permit and is sold, its executives would walk away from the deal having done very well for themselves.
Minnesota taxpayers and people who live downstream would never get to walk away from PolyMet’s proposed mine.
The job of the DNR is to protect the public interest, not to ensure that corporations are happy. The DNR should listen to its own employees and the consultants it has hired and require PolyMet to find a safer way to store the millions of tons of mine waste it would produce. One consultant went so far as to tell the DNR that “no other jurisdiction” would permit using a temporary dam to store waste for hundreds of years, but the DNR didn’t require PolyMet to change its plans. Instead, it included a permit condition that requires PolyMet to “perpetually maintain” the dam.
Rather than listening to its own experts, the DNR is going down a different road — one that puts the public at risk. The state of Minnesota seems willing to ignore expert recommendations and permit risky practices in the name of reducing the cost to PolyMet. Mine-waste dam failures have killed dozens of people and fouled hundreds of miles of rivers and streams in just the past few years. These are not minor concerns, nor the problems of the past. The DNR’s draft PolyMet permit would accept those risks for the next 900 years, at least.
The Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy is antipollution, not antimining. We owe it to our children and grandchildren to only permit facilities that meet strict environmental standards, use the best available technology and conform to industry best practices. If we are to responsibly mine our state’s natural resources, we cannot do so by using outdated, risky “mining on the cheap.” We should not accept mining practices that outside experts from all over the world have repeatedly warned against.
Unless the DNR makes a strong stand, we fear the draft PolyMet permit would set a low bar for potential copper-nickel mining proposals upstream of Lake Superior and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Kathryn Hoffman is the chief executive officer of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy.