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As with any complex issue, there are multiple reasons people have the perspectives they do. Our childhood backgrounds, economic situations, and general life priorities differ. People who align with each other on many issues can find their values vary significantly on others.
That is the story surrounding proposed mining projects in northern Minnesota. For many, it is confusing why mining would be allowed so close to the watersheds that impact tourism dollars of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, the safety of wild rice and fish, and the places where toxicity levels already disproportionately affect children in the Lake Superior region
For others, there are economic arguments in favor of mining that make sense. Those same arguments seem unconvincing to others.
Some Minnesotans are hopeful that local jobs could be created for long- term mining employment, and that environmental regulations could be enacted for safekeeping from pollution. Still others point out that the mining track record has historically been poor in both instances, and there is no reason to trust it will improve now.
Why Is Mining in Northern Minnesota an Issue in 2018?
The Duluth Complex is described by PolyMet Mining Inc. as one of the largest undeveloped mineral deposits in the world, with more than 4 billion tons of copper, nickel, and precious metals.
Politically, some are in favor of the mining jobs that can be created in a struggling economic region. With voter support needed in November, one concern is that upsetting constituents who need jobs could reduce votes for candidates that challenge mining efforts.
In a community that has traditionally been Democratic, yet saw a large number of votes preferring the Republican Presidential candidate in 2016, the gap between many job-seeking voters and environment-oriented voters is a contentious one
Traditionally, mining has been exclusively the domain of men: the decision-making around its use, the jobs, and the disposal of toxic material. Today, however, there are more women involved in leadership and advocacy. We talked to a few of them — some quoted and some for background — to get a better understanding of factors involved in this contentious issue.
It’s About Money
Twin Metals, which is owned by Chilean mining company Antofagasta PLC, is a few years away from finishing a proposal to develop a $2.8 billion underground mine. A 2014 report indicated that it would operate for 30 years and could create 850 full-time jobs, plus construction and support jobs.
The PolyMet Mining Corp.’s open-pit mine cleared the environmental review process in March 2018 and now needs to secure important permits, such as for water quality and dam safety. See the “Money Matters” section on page 16 for some of the economic factors that favor mine development.
It’s About Trust
News stories and history have led to several areas of mistrust. Can corporations prevent environmental disasters? Can they work sustainably and with integrity in the community? Is the project able to honor past commitments?
Nancy Schuldt, a biologist and aquatic ecology scientist, put it this way in an interview with MWP writer Jenn Hyvonen: “Minnesota has a history of non-sustainable exploitation of natural resources, like fur trade, timber clear-cutting, and mining.”
Schuldt also pointed out that Native people were used as guides for exploration before being forcibly removed. Treaties were supposed to ensure that future Native generations have the right to hunt, fish, and gather from those lands and waters, in perpetuity, “which we believe legally obligates the federal government to make healthy, sustainable resources available and protected.”
Schuldt added that the Bois Forte, Fond du Lac, and Grand Portage Bands do not oppose mining, “but rather believe that mining should be done in a responsible way that meets regulations and minimizes environmental impacts.”
It’s About Votes
From another perspective, political strategists have looked at the changing landscape for Minnesota voters. In 2016, Donald Trump carried far more counties than Hillary Clinton in the state, which is one reason the 2018 mid-term elections will have heavy dollars invested to reach voters.
At stake: The Governor’s office, the seats of U.S. Senators, and all U.S. House seats, including an 8th Congressional district seat. The latter district includes progressive environment-oriented voters in Duluth as well as pro-mining voters on the Iron Range. Obama won the district in 2012. Trump led it by 15 percentage points in 2016, carrying precincts not won by Republicans in 80 years.
It’s About Environment
Fish, rice, and the circulating air could be impacted by sulfide mining. According to the 812-page Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) for the Polymet Mining Corp. project, the growth and viability of wild rice can be impacted by elevated sulfate concentrations.
Polymet created a pilot plant to show regulators it could meet the wild rice standard using treatment technologies by extracting harmful metals from water used in the processing. According to Polymet, membrane filtration will “remove sulfate and metals from water to below water quality standards before it’s discharged into the environment during operations and closure.”
The company also indicates that, when mining efforts conclude, “waste rock with the highest sulfur content will be returned to the empty mine pit for underwater storage, where the potential to weather and oxidize is greatly reduced. This higher-sulfide content rock represents about 6 percent of the total waste rock that will be mined. Extensive testing demonstrates that the other 94 percent of waste rock is not capable of generating acid.”