Responsible metal mining will create jobs

by Rolf Westgard — professional member, Geological Society of America

The proposed Iron Range nickel, copper and palladium mines will not damage our tourist industry. It will drain south, which is away from the Boundary Waters area. The project will be more beneficial than not in the end. Nature gave Minnesota minerals like iron ore and the nonferrous group of copper, nickel, cobalt, palladium and platinum. WeâÄôve dug up most of the iron. However, nestled in a band meandering along the Archean granite of the Iron Range is an undisturbed deposit of nonferrous metals worth billions of dollars and thousands of jobs. Total world annual production of these metals is just 30 pounds or so per person, and the price and demand are rising. Manufacturing renewable energy products like wind turbines, solar panels, electric vehicles, catalytic converters and smart-grid power lines require these nonferrous metals. Minnesota owns more than 6,000 acres of land in the region, and it stands to collect $2.5 billion in royalties in the coming decades if mining proceeds. This state property is known as âÄúschool trust lands.âÄù Under the Minnesota Constitution, income from such lands is earmarked for the Permanent School Fund, which now contributes about $60 per pupil to every school district. An analysis by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources projected that the school fund, with assets of $720 million, could more than triple in size with copper royalties over 25 to 30 years. Two mining ventures have long-term, federal and state government leases to mine those metals. The largest venture is the open-pit NorthMet Project by PolyMet Corp. of Canada with its partner, the big Swiss metals company Glencore. The other mine is the underground Nokomis Project, a partnership of Duluth Metals of Canada, Twin Metals Minnesota LLC and ChileâÄôs Antofagasta, the worldâÄôs largest copper producer. Environmentalists are lined up in opposition to these projects, viewing them as a serious threat to water quality. The issue is these ores are reactive sulfide minerals. When mined, the sulfur comes in contact with water and oxygen, forming sulfuric acid. ItâÄôs possible this acid can dissolve and carry away toxic elements, polluting water supplies in a process known as acid rock drainage. In the past, acidic, metal-rich waters from mining have damaged the environment when mining companies didnâÄôt follow safe practices. Today, mining companies have to be good stewards of the environment and laws are made to ensure this happens. In the 1990s at Ladysmith, Wis., Kennecott safely operated an open-pit, copper-sulfide mine 140 feet from the Flambeau River. All surface-area drainage and pit-pumping water was treated, successfully purified and returned to the environment. The pit was backfilled with waste rock to avoid acid rock drainage upon closure. There were no violations of permits in construction, operation or closure. These are the kinds of practices that are required in Minnesota. Project advocates include U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack, Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken and area mayors who want quality jobs for the depressed Iron Range. The 714-page draft Environmental Impact Statement for the NorthMet Project from the Minnesota DNR and the U.S. Corps of Engineers confirmed good practices and generally is positive about the project. It states that if all commitments are met, there would be no serious impact on the environment. The following quote from the draft statement on the Partridge River applies to the total area involved: âÄúEven using relatively conservative assumptions, the Proposed Action is not predicted to result in any exceedances of surface water quality standards for the Partridge River at the modeled locations.âÄù It is time for the dirt to fly.