Anti-sulfide mining bill stirs controversy

BY Jon Collins
Legislative Correspondent
Published: February 22, 2009
Source: Mesabi Daily News

Bob Tammen, of Soudan, Minn., worked as an electrician in the taconite mines on and off for thirty years.

Tammen and his wife travelled to the state capitol Thursday to voice their support for newly introduced legislation that would place requirements, which critics characterize as prohibitions, on non-ferrous mines in Minnesota.

Non-ferrous mining refers to a technique that extracts copper, zinc, and other minerals from the ground.

Unlike taconite, where the main byproduct is rust, non-ferrous mining’s byproduct is sulfuric acid, which can pollute lakes, rivers and even drinking water.

Tammen said even taconite mines, of which he’s a strong supporter, created environmental concerns on the Range that the state is still dealing with decades later.

“We look at that and we’re apprehensive,” he said, “because here are problems that we’ve been dealing with 30 years and they still don’t have them cleaned up; there’s no end in sight.”

The exploration of non-ferrous mines at a handful of sites on the Range has Tammen worried.

“It’s obvious that whatever our regulatory climate is, the state of Minnesota’s regulatory agencies have not been capable of regulating the mining industry,” he said. “We came to see if our legislature can create a climate where we can clean up the mining industry.”

Critics worry that the bill is purposely drawn so broadly that it would be a de facto prohibition on non-ferrous mining, erasing the potential for revenue and jobs from mines in Minnesota.

Iron Range lawmakers oppose the legislation, saying the state’s current regulations, which were created through a collaborative effort in the 1990s, already adequately address environmental concerns.

But environmentalists and their allies say there have been too many cases around the country where mining companies filed for bankruptcy and left taxpayers holding the bag for cleanup of toxic pollutants.

Tammen said people need only to open their eyes on Range to witness the damage mining companies have caused.

“Dunka Pit has been discharging heavy metals, they had an acid drainage problem 30 years ago,” he said. “Now they’re proposing to bring in the copper industry and introduce some new problems when they can’t take care of the old problems.”

Advocates say will protect and collect

The legislation was authored by state Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, and Sen. Jim Carlson, DFL-Eagan.

Its main goals, Hausman said, are to ensure taxpayers aren’t held liable for cleanup costs at mines, and to further restrict long-term environmental damage.

It would tighten restrictions to ensure mining operations wouldn’t require cleanup after closure.

“Where this has happened other places, it hasn’t quite worked out the way mining companies have said,”
 Hausman said. “We just want to be sure that if it’s permitted, it’s clear what they say they can accomplish by way of damage reduction.”

The mining companies financial assurance, an upfront payment from the mining company, would be due before a permit could be approved. The amount due would be based on the cost of reclamation and cleanup if the mine ceased operation.

The legislation would also require the state to conduct periodic examination of the assurance fund to ensure their accuracy.

“(Mines) have got to post some sort of financial assurance mechanism to protect the taxpayers,” Hausman said. “If (mine companies) goof up we don’t want the taxpayers to be held liable.”

The legislation was a reaction to the recent introduction of non-ferrous mining companies to Minnesota, along with a concern about their environmental track record, said John Tuma, government relations associate for the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, a group which spearheaded the legislation.

States like Michigan, Montana and New Mexico had acid drainage pollution that impacted water quality well after mines closed, Tuma said.

“That’s the experience that other states have had,” Tuma said. “They’ve been left with huge bills to clean up some of the problems that have been experienced.”

Non-ferrous mining restrictions in Minnesota are mostly adequate, Tuma said, but allow too much leeway for mining companies to avoid post-closure cleanup by declaring bankruptcy.

“(The goal of the legislation) is that our children and grandchildren aren’t left with the bill when these foreign corporations and interests come in,” he said, “and then leave us with the bill of having to manage them in the future.”

Current rules sufficient, says mining lobby

Frank Ongaro, executive director of industry group Mining Minnesota, said current state regulations are already some of the tightest in the nation.

“(Statutes) already are in place to ensure waters standards are met, air standards are met, and financial responsibility for reclamation is in place,” he said. “No additional restrictions are necessary.”

Current regulations were written with the input of environmentalists during the 90s, he said.

Ongaro said oft-cited examples of polluting non-ferrous mines are largely outdated.

“(There) are operations in different states that haven’t operated since World War Two that are totally different types of metal mining than what is being proposed here,” he said.

PolyMet is a company engaged in a non-ferrous mining project on the Range that has been in state permit processes for almost four years, said Latisha Gietzen, vice-president of public, government, and environmental affairs at PolyMet.

Gietzen said the environmental review process has largely involved figuring out how to minimize environmental effects.

“We’ve basically looked at ways things have been done at different operations,” she said. “We’re going well above and beyond what other companies have.”

Under their plan, PolyMet would use a combination of technologies — water treatment and reuse, along with less reliance on stockpiles and liners — to create a facility that discharged no potentially polluted surface water from the project.

Ongaro and Gietzen said the current regulatory process would help to create one of the most environmentally-friendly mines in the world.

The bill’s author, Rep. Hausman, said if that is true, than the mining company has nothing to fear from the bill, which she said just formalizes current environmental standards.

“Because PolyMet and others say they won’t leave any damage, we’re sort of taking them at their word and saying great, those will be the parameters by which we grant the permit,” Hausman said.

Prohibition or preservation

But both Gietzen and Ongaro agree that the legislation would prove to be a de facto ban on non-ferrous mining — something they suspect the bill’s supporters realize.

“They’re opposed to these projects and they’re going to do what they can to slow them up, delay them or make sure there’s a ban,” Gietzen said.

Hausman denies the accusation, pointing to Wisconsin’s requirement that companies first operate mines cleanly in other areas as an example of a ban.

“You don’t see me introducing a ‘No Sulfite Mining’ bill; there are some northern Minnesota environmental groups that would like us to,” she said. “That’s why we believe this is the compromise bill.”

But the problem with the new legislation, Ongaro and Gietzmen said, is that it defines water treatment too broadly and withholds permits for projects that would require any cleanup after mine closure.

“(It limits) the type of things like passive biological treatment, the type of things you want to have,” Ongaro said. “You couldn’t permit a Wal-Mart parking lot under this bill.”

The bill’s requirement of a financial assurance fund isn’t drastically different from current law, Gietzen said. PolyMet has already invested around $20 million in their environmental permit process.

Although, the high cost of the assurance fund could negatively affect the business climate of all mining in Minnesota at a time when Minnesotans need jobs, Ongaro said.

“Even with all the current economic problems — the decline in metal prices, the individual company stock share price declines — these projects are all still viable,” he said. “We believe that this (legislation) sends a negative message to people who want to invest in mining in the state of Minnesota.”

The PolyMet environmental impact statement will be released by April, Gietzen said. If all goes according to plan, the mining operation could be functioning by 2010, with a one-year lag to full productivity.

The PolyMet facility would bring 400 regular jobs to the Range, according to Gietzen, along with about 1.5 million man-hours for construction.

As Minntac and other mines face layoffs, it would be “highly ridiculous” to propose a bill that could cost more jobs on the Range, said Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm.

“We have projects that would create a lot of good jobs and I believe this bill would kill the projects,” he said. “I have a very difficult time with anybody introducing bills in this economy that could potentially kill jobs, as opposed to producing jobs.”

From a global environmental perspective, Gietzen said, having the project in Minnesota makes sense.

“If you’re truly talking about global environment, people would be supportive of what we’re doing,” Gietzen said, “especially if you look at the global impact of producing copper in a smelter in china compared to what we’re proposing to do here.”


John Tuma, of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, said the legislation’s goal is to protect the environment, and that the group is more than willing to meet with concerned lawmakers to iron out details that are too restrictive.

“The philosophy of the MEP has been to work with the stakeholders to come up with legislation that not only protects the waters but preserves Minnesota jobs,” Tuma said. “We’re more than happy to talk with those folks, so if they have concerns we’ll sit down and try to address them in a fashion that makes sense.”

Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said he shares the authors’ concerns for the environment on the Range, but opposes the bill because he sees it as a prohibition on non-ferrous mining.

“I love northern Minnesota as much as anybody in this capital,” he said.

Bakk met with the bill’s Senate author, Sen. Carlson, on Thursday to discuss his concerns. He also offered suggestions that might improve the bills effectiveness while not serving as a de facto ban.

Although he still doesn’t support the bill, Bakk suggested creating a fund that skims a little money off each mineral shipment rather than the upfront lump sum that could be cost prohibitive for companies.

“I want to make sure that any kind of unintended environmental impacts, that there’s adequate money to address them,” Bakk said. “I live there; the last thing I want is to do something that has long term impacts to the water quality for my kids or my grandkids.”