First Potential Non-Ferrous Mine Moves Closer to Fruition, What's at Stake?

By KBJR News 1

November 20, 2012 Updated Nov 20, 2012 at 12:41 PM CDT

The fight over the future of copper-nickel mining centers on concerns about contaminating the air, water and lands of the Northland.

Opponents say there's no way to avoid that pollution...but you might be surprised to learn that for the last 20 years the state has been quietly managing to keep acid drainage from copper-nickel bearing rock from contaminating the environment in Northeastern Minnesota.

"The multi-national corporations who seek to set up shop in Minnesota have managed many sulfide mines around the world. The problem is that they have never successfully operated and closed a sulfide mine without polluting local lakes and rivers," said Paul Austin, Executive Director of Conservation MN.

This is the latest in a series of anti-sulfide mining ads from environmental groups opposed to opening non-ferrous mines in Northeastern Minnesota.

They say copper nickel can't be mined without extensive, irreparable environmental damage... but the mining company that's closest to opening a copper mine on the Iron Range says that's simply not the case.

"We can create jobs and protect the environment. It's not a mutually exclusive proposition," said John Cherry, PolyMet President and CEO.

Environmental groups often point to a closed taconite mine near Babbitt, that accidentally exposed sulfide bearing rock, and created significant environmental damage in the 1960s.

"We look at Dunka Pit and Spruce Road as the canary in the coal mine to which could very potentially happen with these sulfide mines," said Ian Kimmer of "Friends of the Boundary Waters."

50 years ago, at the Dunka mine, near Babbitt, millions of tons of waste rock were moved to get at an iron ore deposit. Unbeknownst to the mining company, the rock they considered waste material, contained varying amounts of copper nickel and iron sulfide...

"A mineral that is not stable once it is broken and exposed to oxygen, so it's a presence of those minerals that led to water quality issues at the site," said Paul Eger, a Consultant and Environmental Engineer.

Acidic drainage from the waste rock piles ran into Birch Lake and the Kawishiwi River watershed causing serious contamination.

:There were elevated concentrations of metal in the water," said Kim Lappako of the Minnesota DNR.

The problem wasn't actually discovered until the late 1980s.

"All of this operation started before there was environmental review, before there were permitting programs, before most of the environmental regulations were in place," said Ann Foss of MN Pollution Control Agency.

Once discovered the DNR and MPCA worked jointly to find a way to stop the drainage and clean up the watershed.

"The agencies have worked successfully on resolving that problem, even though not even one of us had anticipated this kind of a problem when they first started the operation," said Foss.

Five large waste rock piles were created and experimental treatments were put in place. The idea was to reduce the levels of heavy metals in the discharges and neutralize the acid.

"We looked at the different compositions of rock, looked at the water quality, looked at the potential risks," said Eger.

The agencies designed synthetic liners to cover the rock piles to block the air from converting the sulfides to acid and created wetlands to filter out heavy metals before they could get to the rivers and lakes. Through years of testing and adjustments, the site now has operation permits from the MPCA...albeit with variances that allow heavy metals to leach out in amounts higher than current state standards.

Eventually we'll reissue that permit, and we hope to be able to reissue it without a variance from the metal standards.

"You can see that it kills things and the state has not only, has done little or nothing, and when they did something, one of the primary things they did was to provide variances," said Kimmer.

Effective treatment is critical because everyone agrees that acid drainage can cause damage that lasts for centuries.

"There is examples of mine drainage problems that date back to mining that the Romans did. So yeah, this is centuries of problems," said Eger.

"Today there are existing, stringent rules and laws in place before you begin to mine...so you don't end up with centuries old problems they had in Roman times," Cherry said.

These days the MPCA continually monitors the Dunka site and state reports indicate that recent testing shows little quantifiable environmental impact at the site.

"Have been treating drainage at that facility successfully for, this is their 20th year," Eger said.

There are several companies looking to open copper-nickel mines in the Duluth Complex with PolyMet being the closest to getting the permits needed to begin operations.

The scientists say the lessons learned at the Dunka mine are being put to good use as they work to make sure the environment is protected at the proposed new mine sites.
Barbara will talk more about those protective steps tomorrow.