Paul Austin

Paul Austin is the director of Conservation Minnesota, a statewide non-profit. In that role, he gets to hear and share Minnesotan’s stories about our lakes, lands and way of life. Paul’s past lives include election as a small town mayor, serving at the US Agency for International Development, and managing a small marketing firm. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife, two small children and one very large dog.

The Truth Can Be Worse Than Fiction

Posted by: Paul Austin under Government Updated: January 27, 2014 - 4:02 PM

We should learn from events in West Virginia

A brand new company leaks several thousand gallons of toxic chemicals into a watershed that is the primary water source for approximately 300,000 people. Upon noticing its liability, the company declares bankruptcy, and next thing you know, the residents who were harmed by the leak are asked to pay to clean it up with their tax dollars. 

This scenario actually played out in with the chemical spill in West Virginia a few weeks back.  But its an important reminder for all of us that bankruptcy is an easy and quick option for companies when disaster hits.  If were not careful, taxpayers are left to pick up the pieces…and pay for them.

Tomorrow night the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources will be facilitating its third and final public hearing on the environmental impacts of a proposed copper nickel mine which will rest on the watershed that feeds the City of Duluth and its surrounding areas with the majority of its drinking water. The population of the Duluth metro area is also right around 300,000.  

Copper nickel mining has never been done in this state, and it has never been done anywhere in this country without leaving a history of water pollution in its wake.  While some point to the relatively clean history of iron mining as proof that type of mining can be done safely, the truth is, iron mines have little in common with this proposed mine.  When tailings from iron mines are exposed to the elements, they create rust.  When tailings from a copper-nickel mine are exposed to the same air and rain, it produces sulfuric acid.  

 The hearing, which begins at 5 p.m. at River Center in St. Paul, will give people the opportunity to learn more about the proposals, and, if they so desire, share their thoughts on the project in either written form, or as a speaker at the public forum.  In the two previous public forums, one in Duluth and one in Aurora, hundreds of people showed up to make their concerns known. 

I am concerned that the plan put forward by the mining company, Polymet, will require treatment of polluted water at the site for hundreds of years after mining stops.  I am also concerned that the company has no plans in its 2000+ page document for what it would do if something predictable goes wrong like a pipeline break or wastewater treatment failure.  Finally, I am concerned that there are no details as to how taxpayers will be protected from   paying to clean up if the company decides not to stay and manage its waste for 500 years after they finish mining.  

Just like in West Virginia, at any moment a company can use bankruptcy to hide from its cleanup responsibilities.  Our state leaders shouldn't wait until the last minute of this public process to let Minnesota taxpayers know how they will protect us from ending up like folks in West Virginia. What good can come from avoiding the issue?

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