Environmental Concerns Surround Non-Ferrous Mining

By KBJR News 1

November 20, 2012 Updated Nov 20, 2012 at 11:44 PM CDT

Hoyt Lakes, MN (NNCNOW.com) - Despite attempts by environmental groups to slow or block the emergence of Copper Nickel mining in Northern Minnesota, one non-ferrous mining company is poised to begin operations in about a year.

Two major, international companies are quite advanced in their efforts to open copper nickel mines in the geologic formation in Northern Minnesota known as the Duluth Complex.

Stretching from Aitkin County to Ely, it contains more than four billion tons of valuable non-ferrous metals. If these minerals are mined, experts say there's enough to keep plants producing for more than 30 years.

Several mining companies have begun test drilling and would like to open copper nickel mines in region.

Polymet is ahead of its other copper-nickel mines by virtue of the fact that it started first. Once it gets its permits in place, it will be even further ahead because of the fact that it bought this LTV mine from Cliffs, and with it came a lot of working infrastructure."

“We're looking at the supplemental draft being out this spring,” said LaTisha Gietzen, the vice president of Public, Government and Environmental Affairs for Polymet.

Once that draft is reviewed by the public then state and federal environmental agencies will create the final Environmental Impact statement.

“ At the end of an EIS, we all see what the potential environmental impacts are, and then the state agencies use that information to move forward on permitting,” said Ann Foss with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

Once those are complete, we'll be able to start construction,” LaTisha said.

Getting to this point has taken PolyMet almost ten years at a cost of some 46 million dollars. PolyMet's CEO says its time and money well-spent.

The modern rules and regulations set a high standard and threshold, and it's our job to design a project and make sure we can meet those standards,” said John Cherry, president & CEO of PolyMet.

But Ian Kimmer, representing the environmental group, "Friends of the Boundary Waters", doesn't trust that the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency sets high enough standards to protect the environment.

“The state agencies are okaying something that the federal government wouldn't,” Kimmer said.

PolyMet officials are well aware of the environmental concerns and say they've worked closely with the Department of Natural Resources as well as the MPCA.

“ You have to meet the environmental standards and lots of companies are looking at not only meeting them, but going beyond,” said Paul Eger, a consultant and environmental enginner.

Scientist Paul Eger, has, for years, studied a closed Iron Range mine site in which iron sulfide metals were exposed to air and water and leeched out contaminating the nearby watershed.

“It was a situation that occurred and that we were able to learn from it and our regulations and rules were developed after that,” Eger said.

Eger says scientists have been able to use the knowledge gained through treating the pollution at the Dunka mine as they move toward opening copper-nickel mines.

The operation and some of the techniques that we've used there, we understand those better, those can be applied to future mining as well,” Eger said.

“ That's the responsibility we have, to ensure our projects and mines are protective of the environment, and that's our obligation,” Cherry said.

Last month PolyMet shared results of its new reverse osmosis treatment system that removes sulfate from water to meet state standards.

“We just finished treating over a million gallons of water with elevated sulfate levels to demonstrate that the technology is robust enough to be used in this case,” Cherry said.

The plan is to have a water treatment plant, along with leak detection monitoring wells in place when the plant opens.

“We want to make sure we get it right so we can open a mine and have minimal impact on the environment,” LaTisha said.

PolyMet officials say their mine will directly employ 360 people.

A recent study at the University of Minnesota-Duluth showed an additional 600 indirect jobs would also be created with an overall economic impact in St. Louis County of $515 million a year for an estimated 20 to 30 years.

Barbara Reyelts