The Star Tribune’s Aug. 25 editorial calling upon Gov. Tim Walz to end the “contemptible veil of secrecy” surrounding the proposed Twin Metals copper-sulfide mine was welcome news.
My organization, Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, is in federal court with partner organizations and businesses to stop the Trump administration’s illegal reinstatement of Twin Metals’ expired mineral leases. We have also demanded that the administration complete the promised environmental assessment of copper-sulfide mining in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness watershed that Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue halted before its scientific findings could become public.
However, the editorial fell short in that it created a dangerous double standard for the proposed PolyMet copper-sulfide mine that would be 12 miles from the Twin Metals site. The editorial suggested that there should be less concern about PolyMet because it is not in the BWCA watershed, but rather in the watershed of Lake Superior (home to 11% of the world’s fresh water). This is a false distinction.
The two copper-sulfide mines currently proposed for Minnesota — Twin Metals and PolyMet — represent one common threat to the environment, economy and taxpayers of Minnesota. Unlike Minnesota’s traditional taconite mining, both Twin Metals and PolyMet would produce sulfuric acid runoff that leaches out heavy metals, contaminating the lakes, rivers and groundwater with mercury, lead, arsenic and other toxins. Both Twin Metals and PolyMet are owned by foreign conglomerates — Chilean-based Antofagasta and Swiss-based Glencore, respectively — that have dismal histories of labor and human-rights violations, environmental degradation, and corruption.
The false distinction that the Star Tribune Editorial Board is making between Twin Metals and PolyMet has a disturbing environmental justice subtext. The Fond du Lac Reservation is directly downstream from PolyMet, and the Fond du Lac Band and other Native nations retain hunting, gathering and fishing rights in the areas that would be negatively impacted by PolyMet. To elevate the concerns about the pollution of the BWCA from Twin Metals over the pollution of the Lake Superior watershed from PolyMet implies that the Fond du Lac Band and other Native nations are less worthy of protection than BWCA users.
The “contemptible veil of secrecy” that the Editorial Board so correctly ascribes to the federal government’s handling of Twin Metals also extends to how state and federal regulators have handled PolyMet. Recently revealed documents show that officials at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and top officials at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency office in Chicago actively conspired in March 2018 to prevent the concerns of EPA scientists over the PolyMet wastewater discharge permit from becoming public.
The silence of the Walz administration and the Minnesota Legislature in response to the PolyMet document suppression scandal is deafening. The Legislature has taken no action in response to the call of the Editorial Board (June 23) to hold legislative hearings into the matter. The Walz administration has responded to the scandal by accusing PolyMet opponents of playing a game of Whac-A-Mole with these concerns, rather than using these revelations as an opportunity for an independent examination of the rigorousness and effectiveness of the PolyMet permitting process.
Walz did not create the mess with the PolyMet permits, but he is now the leader of our state and needs to take action. A good starting point for the governor would be to take the following steps:
1) Hire an independent investigator to examine the revelations surrounding the MPCA-EPA document-suppression scandal.
2) Stay the PolyMet wastewater permit during this investigation. Such a stay would be independent of any judicial order requiring stay of the permit.
3) Conduct a full assessment of Glencore’s business practices to evaluate the risks that Glencore poses to Minnesota and determine whether Minnesota’s laws should be strengthened to prevent a corporate bad actor like Glencore from operating in our state.
4) Evaluate the risks to Minnesota taxpayers posed by PolyMet’s permit, which requires the company to put up less than 3% of the cash required to cover the more than $1 billion in environmental liabilities at the peak of mining operations.
Silence is not an option for Gov. Walz. Minnesota needs him to act and provide leadership, and we need it now.
Christopher D. Knopf is executive director of Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness. On Twitter: @friendsbwcaw.