As Quakers, we are called to live simply, to care for the creation and to husband resources. In light of that calling, we have been concerned to understand the implications of the copper-nickel mining proposed for northern Minnesota by PolyMet, Twin Metals and other corporations.
Our research leaves us deeply troubled. Traditional mining in this state has been very different from the copper-nickel mining now proposed. Iron-ore deposits in northern Minnesota were so rich that originally iron was essentially just scooped out of the ground. The copper-nickel deposit, by comparison, is exceptionally poor. About 99 percent of the rock from which the metals must be extracted would be waste, and much of it would have to be ground to the consistency of powder. This waste rock bears sulfide. Sulfide-bearing rock exposed to air and water yields sulfuric acid, producing forms of pollution (including mercury, arsenic, lead and other toxins) that — according to PolyMet’s own documents — would last at least 500 years.
Proponents of copper-nickel mining argue that our current way of life demands these metals, that opening these mines will provide high-paying jobs and that new technology will prevent pollution. All of these claims weaken drastically when scrutinized.
Yes, our current way of life requires copper. According to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, however, copper scrap already provides half of the annual U.S. demand for that metal and the U.S. provides 23 percent of the world supply of recovered copper. So recycling holds tremendous potential for fulfilling most of this nation’s needs. Given the devastation that copper-nickel mining commonly leaves in its wake, we are also led to question the wisdom of our current way of life.
The argument that copper-nickel mining will boost the regional economy seems a half-truth at best. Typically, mining companies import their expertise from elsewhere. Only half of the jobs promised by the mining companies are apt to go to local residents; the highest-paid positions will be taken by outsiders, who will leave the area once the mine has been exploited. Mines are also subject to shutdowns when market prices drop. The metals extracted from these mines likely will be exported; the profits will go to shareholders around the world rather than the residents of northern Minnesota. History predicts that once these mines are exhausted, their owners will declare bankruptcy and absolve themselves of responsibility for damage left behind.
The argument that new technology will prevent pollution is little more than wishful thinking. Sooner or later, copper-nickel waste rock creates acid mine drainage, which often eats its way to groundwater. New technology remains experimental and untested on an industrial scale, while exploratory drill sites in northern Minnesota already are leaking acid. Even if technology can be developed to treat copper-nickel pollution effectively, who will pay for, operate and maintain this technology 24 hours a day, day after day, for 500 years or more? Corporations come and go; so do governments.
We understand the hunger for jobs in northern Minnesota, though people have lived here for thousands of years without depending on paychecks from multinational corporations. Over the past two decades, while the mining workforce shrank, the economy diversified and grew less vulnerable to the boom-and-bust cycle of mining. We support continued diversification. And we support iron mining, which is undergoing a revival, thanks to new methods and products, although we think this industry requires stricter regulation.
We believe enthusiasm for copper-nickel mining is shortsighted. We are reminded of the Old Testament story in which Esau, entering his father’s tent, ravenous from his hunting expedition, sold his birthright for a bowl of stew. Copper-nickel mining, always risky for humans and their environment, is least dangerous in arid settings. But northern Minnesota, the site of three major watersheds, is one of the richest sources of freshwater in the world. Such wealth requires our most careful stewardship.
After months of study and reflection, with regard not only for ourselves but also for our neighbors and those creatures great and small with whom we share this region, the Duluth-Superior Friends Meeting declares its opposition to copper-nickel mining in northern Minnesota.
Barton Sutter is clerk, Peace and Social Concerns Committee, Duluth-Superior Friends Meeting, which unanimously approved this statement.