Sulfide mining debate continues, despite lack of need

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

It feels like it’s been forever that international corporations have planned sulfide mines for northeast Minnesota. Maybe it’s taking long enough that it will become clear to everyone that we don’t need the minerals, especially not for the clean energy projects the corporations claim the mines are for.

 Last month, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) announced it would maintain its decision to grant an air quality permit for the PolyMet copper-nickel sulfide mine, despite evidence that PolyMet intends to construct a larger mine than it originally told regulators. The mine, proposed to be built near Hoyt Lakes, would be the first of its kind in Minnesota and would threaten Minnesota’s waters and Lake Superior for centuries if constructed.

As MinnPost’s Walker Orenstein reports, the project faces several more decision points and lawsuits this year. While environmental groups and the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa continue to resist this mine in court, state agencies have been accommodating  PolyMet throughout the process. 

Meanwhile, Twin Metals, the other major sulfide ore mine proposal in Minnesota, faces stronger headwinds. The Biden Administration has begun the process of seeking a 20-year ban on sulfide mining on federal lands surrounding the Boundary Waters, a watershed threatened by Twin Metals. However,this is not a permanent end to this threat.

Natural spaces and resources are core to our identity as Minnesotans, so it should come as no surprise that the backers of both mines claim that this type of mining isn’t just good for their economic interests, but somehow beneficial for the environment. Both mining companies claim that through new technology, they can achieve the unprecedented feat of conducting sulfide mining without polluting the surrounding watersheds. PolyMet even claims that its efforts will leave the site better than the company found it.

These claims don’t hold water, of course. These mines would destroy vast swaths of wetlands, which are among the most valuable tools we have to sequester carbon and fight climate change. Their construction and operation would generate significant emissions, regardless of Twin Metals’ claim (with no guarantee) that it would use an electric vehicle fleet to dig minerals near Ely.

Even absent a spill, PolyMet’s own proposal acknowledges that maintenance of the toxic waste site they leave behind would last 200 years or more – a timespan that will likely dwarf the existence of the company, leaving future Minnesotans to pick up the bill. And a spill from either mine would cause devastation in some of the largest freshwater resources on the planet.

Because of the weakness of those arguments, sulfide mining backers have taken to greenwashing another way: by claiming that Minnesota and the United States need the copper, nickel, and other metals they would dig up in order to facilitate the green energy transition. It’s true that this transition will require a lot of copper for turbines, transmission lines, electric vehicles, and more. But are Minnesota mines like PolyMet specifically needed to help meet these needs?

MEP member Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy analyzed that question and showed that the answer is “no.” Between the other sources of copper at existing mines, the potential to increase U.S. copper recycling from the present level of 33%, and the advent of alternatives to copper in areas like plumbing, PolyMet has no significant value to world copper markets or our green transition. Copper is widely available, with a large amount going into or already sitting in U.S. landfills. It’s certainly nowhere near rare enough to justify PolyMet, a mine that would strip massive swaths of Minnesota land to reach sparse minerals underneath it.

The most valuable natural resource in Minnesota isn’t something to be mined: it’s the freshwater ecosystems of the land of 10,000 lakes. With a majority of Minnesota waters already considered impaired, and waters around the world becoming more vulnerable due to pollution and climate change, we can’t afford to risk these resources, or to threaten the health and livelihoods of Indigenous and other downstream communities.

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