A tale of two projects

Hoyt Lakes, Minn. – the new ground zero of the jobs versus environment battleground.

by Holly Lahd

Hoyt Lakes, Minn., is a small Iron Range town that Bob Dylan might have passed through during his days in Hibbing. On its city Web site, Hoyt Lakes proclaims it is “so accommodating, you may want to stay.” It might seem odd, then, to say that surrounding this town there is a battle brewing. But Hoyt Lakes is the new ground zero of the continuing argument between jobs and the environment that has been fought since the dawn of environmentalism.

Of course, these simple dichotomies don’t really do service to the complex issues facing people who favor economic development and those in support of environmental protection.

Nevertheless, the battle is being fought and this year’s participants are copper mining and coal gasification versus environmentalists.

Many in Hoyt Lakes see these projects as needed economic boom to the area. The Iron Range town of around 2,000 people has been hit hard in the past decade with the closure of the LTV steel taconite plant and dashed hopes of a failed iron nugget project. These failed projects have hurt plans for an economic revival of this once thriving mining town. So it’s no wonder that these two projects are exciting people around the area with hopes of new families coming along with development that will ensure future growth.

Hoyt Lakes is also an alternate site for the first large-scale coal gasification power plant in the country. The 600-plus megawatt Mesaba Energy coal gasification plant has big backers in Sen. Coleman, many state representatives and a multimillion dollar grant from the Department of Energy.

Coal gasification, also known as integrated gasification combined cycle, combines oxygen, heat and pressure to gasify coal and, in turn, drastically reduces the amount of sulfur, mercury, nitrous oxides, and particulate matter emitted into the atmosphere when burned in a turbine. This coal gasification also has the potential to store and sequester carbon dioxide, a leading global warming pollutant. But this sequestration is not included in the project’s initial operations, and there are questions whether the geology of the range has the capability to sequester carbon underground.

Building a coal gasification plant with no carbon sequestration is not acceptable with the global warming threats we face. I applaud Excelsior Energy’s plans to adopt coal gasification. But carbon sequestration must be part of the plan up front.

The other part of the two-project tale is the NorthMet project by PolyMet Mining Corp. The PolyMet project is at the site of a former taconite plant that closed in 2001 and left 1,400 workers without jobs. In a recent Star Tribune article, the Vancouver-based PolyMet laid out its environmental commitment through new mineral-removing technologies that do not utilize dirty, energy-intensive smelters, with all rock waste being stored in lined pits to prevent groundwater contaminations. In addition, PolyMet has set aside money to cover closing operation costs of the mine, which is expected to be in about 20 years.

Environmentalists are right to be skeptical about more mining in Minnesota. There are natural disaster horror stories of copper mines out west leaving decades of pollution. Organizations like the Sierra Club are concerned about possible acid runoff that could make its way to Lake Superior. And these are not small concerns, either.

In 2005 the United States had a net import reliance of 40 percent of consumption of copper. Our copper consumption is not going to decrease anytime soon in the United States. If Hoyt Lakes doesn’t build it, who will? You can speculate all you want, but seeing as after Canada, the next top-three countries we import copper from are Chile, Peru and Mexico, the burden could just be transferred to other regions of the world where the environmental standards are far worse than ours.

We in Minnesota pride ourselves on our history of environmental protection. From our legacy of conservation, we have some of the strongest environmental policies in the country. But too often we as environmentalists are hesitant to put these to the test.

The scope of this mining project is large and could be troublesome, and I make no guarantee that there are not some environmental problems with this mine. However, with large projects come big publicity and big responsibilities, both of which can ensure that the state and the public keep a collective eye on the impacts of this project.

When it comes to the environment, there aren’t solutions – there are only alternatives. There are benefits and downsides of both projects. I hope we as a state can examine them both in hopes of rising above the easy stereotype of jobs versus the environment.

In Hoyt Lakes, there is the tale of two projects. One has a lofty goal of environmental protection but fails in solving the Achilles heel of the problem with coal. The other provides a needed resource with a dirty past, but also has promised to meet Minnesota’s environmental standards.

Holly Lahd welcomes comments at [email protected]