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“Safe Mines” bill introduced in Minnesota legislature

Former iron mine near Eveleth, MN
Former iron mine near Eveleth, MN

A bill to strengthen Minnesota mining laws was recently introduced in the state legislature.
The “Safe Mines to Protect our Water” bill, authored by state Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, and state Sen. Jim Carlson, DFL-Eagan, would require mining companies to provide a “damage deposit” to pay for pollution clean-up and water treatment at closed mine sites. 

The bill is in response to the recent flurry of interest in non-ferrous, or sulfide mining, in Northeastern Minnesota.  Several companies are proposing to mine copper, nickel, and other precious metals on the Eastern Iron Range.  This type of mining would be new to Minnesota.  It differs from traditional iron mining in that when the mined sulfide rock is exposed to air and water it produces toxic waste that can leach sulfuric acid and toxic amounts of heavy metals into surrounding waters for decades after mining operations cease.   Acid mine drainage from sulfide mines in other states has caused significant, long lasting toxic pollution, and in many cases, left taxpayers with cleanup costs after mining companies went bankrupt or walked away when mining operations ceased.

The goal of the “Safe Mines” bill is to ensure that mining companies provide enough money up-front to cover clean-up and water treatment costs. 

“This is a smart bill that shows Minnesota can learn from the mistakes of other states and protect its taxpayers from getting stuck with the clean-up bill,” said Rep. Alice Hausman, co-author of the bill.

Under the proposal, the commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources, in consultation with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and Minnesota Management & Budget will develop the best estimate for closing the mine, cleaning up any pollution and maintaining any systems, such as water treatment facilities.  That money would be put in a trust fund approved by the commissioner of Management & Budget. Each year the mine is in operation, the commissioners of Natural Resources and Management & Budget would review the amount to make sure it is sufficient. 

An earlier version of the bill died in committee during the last legislative session after the chair of the House Environment and Oversight Committee declined to give the bill a hearing.  Dan Eken, DFL-Twin Valley has said he’s not sure if the bill will get heard this session either.

The bill has drawn fierce opposition from Iron Range legislators who say that it would amount to a “back-door” ban on non-ferrous mining in Minnesota. 

Supporters of the legislation say that if Minnesotans are going to open the door to sulfide mining, with its potential for devastating and long lasting environmental impacts, then the state has an obligation to ensure that mining companies provide the financial resources necessary to clean up any pollution created.