Newly introduced bills would protect Minnesota from sulfide mining

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

This week, lawmakers introduced bills in the Minnesota Legislature and in Congress that represent perhaps the most aggressive effort yet to create new protections for our state from copper-nickel sulfide mining. These bills are being championed by MEP member groups, and would help prevent sulfide mining pollution from destroying some of our most valuable resources.

First, on Wednesday, Minnesota Legislators introduced a bill that would enact a “prove-it-first” standard for any non-ferrous ore mine in the state. The legislation would ban any such mine from being permitted in Minnesota until the proposing company and state regulators can prove that a similar mine has operated for at least 10 years, and then shut down for an additional minimum of 10 years, without polluting the surrounding environment. No sulfide ore mine that has ever operated in the United States would meet that standard – each one of them has its own nasty track record.

This bill cuts at a key argument used by backers of Minnesota sulfide mining proposals like PolyMet and Twin Metals, which is that they can guarantee that the new mines will contain waste safely using new technology. Much of that technology is untested. Some parts of it – like the tailings dam that has been proposed for waste storage at PolyMet – have been tested and found wanting, as witnessed by the collapse of multiple tailings dams worldwide in the past few years.

The point of prove-it-first, which until recently was state law in Wisconsin, is that Minnesota should not be the testing ground for risky technology in an industry that has an abysmal track record. Our waters and wetlands in the Boundary Waters and in the St. Louis River watershed are one of our most valuable – and vulnerable – resources. A waste spillage or other mine disaster would poison these waters for centuries, and the destruction of wetlands would exacerbate the climate crisis. With that long-term perspective, 20 years of proof is an entirely reasonable requirement.

On Thursday, Minnesota Congresswoman Betty McCollum unveiled her own legislation that would specifically keep sulfide mining out of Minnesota in the watershed of the Boundary Waters. The Boundary Waters is both a top recreation destination and a highly vulnerable and interconnected ecosystem. If waste from the proposed Twin Metals mine near Ely made its way into the Boundary Waters watershed, it would quickly contaminate vast swaths of the area. 

Minnesota’s waters have great need for protection in this era of climate change, and judging by the permits that mining companies have already secured, Minnesota’s current laws are not up to the task of this protection. Too often, mining companies have been able to either influence the lawmaking process in their favor or game a regulatory process that frequently favors them. Fortunately, the tide may now be turning, as evidenced by Winona County’s success in banning frac sand mining (see news story below). Prove-it-first and protection for the Boundary Waters would be much-needed and powerful steps in the right direction, toward safeguarding our precious lands and waters.

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