Earlier this month, a crew working to clean up the long-closed Gold King mine in Colorado unintentionally breached an earthen dam, releasing an estimated 3 million gallons of mine wastewater into Colorado’s Animas River and prompting the governors of Colorado, New Mexico and Utah, as well as the Navajo Nation, to declare states of emergency.
Mining opponents point to the tragedy as an example of everything that’s wrong with mining and, in Minnesota, why proposed copper-nickel mining shouldn’t happen here.
A look at the history of mining should give us reassurance that mining, and particularly copper-nickel mining, is right for Minnesota.
Gold King is an underground mine that operated from the 1890s to the 1920s, long before the creation of today’s environmental regulatory structure. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency was created in 1970, the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972 and the Mine Safety and Health Administration created in 1977. Our state-level regulatory body, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, was not created until 1967.
Mines that are built in the U.S. and Minnesota today must pass rigorous environmental review and adhere to strict state and federal regulations that were not in place during the lifetime of the Gold King mine.
“The great news is that modern mining does not allow the release of these waters,” said Elizabeth Holley, assistant professor of mining engineering at the Colorado School of Mines. “The bad news is we owe [Colorado] statehood to mining prior to any environmental regulations.”
The contrast between historic and modern mining is stark, in terms of both environmental and safety performance. Mines built and operated throughout the country before the advent of modern mining regulations are burdened with heavy environmental liabilities. Some have become superfund sites or are candidates for the listing, as was the Gold King.
However, since 1990, there have been more than 1,000 hard-rock mines planned, sited and operated on U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management lands, and none has become a superfund site.
Technology such as the reverse osmosis water treatment plant that the proposed PolyMet project near Hoyt Lakes would employ to meet the state’s strict sulfate standards for wild rice could not be dreamed of a century ago. Neither could air-quality monitoring systems that would be in use that are so sensitive that the mercury in a technician’s dental fillings can be detected if he exhales near the equipment.
To protect our safety and the environment, regulations applicable to the mining industry are continuously updated and improved. This enables both the mining of metals that are so vital to our modern lifestyle and the protection of our natural resources.
And, in Minnesota, it allows us to put people to work in a region that is hard-hit with taconite mining layoffs and where mining is a way of life. The proposed PolyMet mine near Hoyt Lakes would create 1,000 direct and spinoff jobs, along with an annual economic benefit to the region of $500 million — 25 times the amount recently requested by Gov. Mark Dayton for Lake Mille Lacs walleye relief.
The Gold King tragedy should not be viewed as a harbinger of the future of modern copper-nickel mining. Rather, it’s an excellent reminder of how far we’ve come.
Frank Ongaro is executive director of Mining Minnesota.