Grand Portage unites with other northern tribes in concern over PolyMet mine proposal

The proposed site of the PolyMet mine
The proposed site of the PolyMet mine

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Tribal governments are coming together in concern over the PolyMet mine proposal.  There’s been a flurry of interest recently by companies that want to mine copper, nickel and other precious metals in northeastern Minnesota, and The Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa is working with The Fond Du Lac Band and the Bois Forte Band to bring the tribes’ concerns to the table.

The type of mining being proposed is called nonferrous or sulfide mining. It targets minerals deep under ground located in sulfide rock. If any of the current companies interested get their projects up and running, there will no doubt be an immediate economic benefit to the iron range. Hundreds of jobs would be created, and in these hard economic times, that would be a welcome change. The PolyMet mine would be a large open pit mine on the Eastern Iron Range, near Babbit and Hoyt Lakes.  But tribal governments that have historic hunting and fishing rights to land in the region and watershed are concerned about the potential for devastating and long lasting environmental impacts from the project. 

Nancy Schuldt is the Water Protection Coordinator with The Fond Du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.  The Polymet mine would drain into the St. Louis River – Lake Superior watershed, upstream of the Fond Du Lac reservation. “This project, as it’s proposed, would have direct impacts on nearly a thousand acres of high quality wetlands at the mine site, and additional acres over at the plant site,” said Schuldt in a phone interview with WTIP.  “And the tribal cooperating agencies believe that there would be substantially more acres of indirect wetland impacts because of things like mine pit dewatering and the way that groundwater changes when you’ve got a big tailings basin and it’s seeping, you know, hundreds of thousands of gallons a day into the surrounding wetlands.”

What makes sulfide mining different from iron mining is that when sulfide bearing rock is exposed to air and water, a chemical reaction generates sulfuric acid causing the release of toxic levels of metals into surrounding ground and surface waters.  Runoff from the mine would drain into areas where the tribe has hunting and fishing rights through a treaty made in 1854. That’s why the Fond Du Lac band, along with The Bois Forte and Grand Portage bands who share in the 1854 treaty rights, asked to take part in the drafting of the Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS, for the Polymet project. As a cooperating agency in the process, the tribes have a seat at the table as the environmental impact statement is drafted.

“Our tribal leadership felt it was important that we get involved to the extent that we could.” said Schuldt. “A cooperating agency essentially has a seat at the table when the environmental impact statement is being drafted and it provides us a voice that is more substantial than just the ordinary citizen or the public in that we’re able to get our viewpoints expressed before the draft EIS is published and hopefully have our concerns be part of the analysis,” Schuldt commented.

In spite of the tribes’ concerns, they have not come out against the Polymet proposal; however, they have been critical of the process so far. Margaret Watkins is Water Quality Specialist at the Grand Portage Reservation in Cook County. She says, “The position of the Grand Portage Band is that the way that the studies have been conducted to determine impacts for the draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) is inadequate, for a number of reasons. The characterization of hydrology at the site has been very poor.  And once acid mine drainage develops on any large scale, no one’s found a way to stop it.  So, what that could mean is perpetual water treatment.  It could mean contaminated water and wetlands, forever, also.”

Polymet says they have the technology to mine without polluting the watershed. Gary Glass is a retired research chemist with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. He has experience with acid mine drainage, and he’s critical of Polymet’s proposal.

“I would agree that the technology is there to do the job, provided that it’s done right,” said Glass.  “The real problem is, the EIS that I read says they will put a liner down in an old pit, an old tailings pit, and then they’ll dump the new tailings on top of that liner.  But that liner will have breaks and tears and holes in it that will allow it to leak.  And a leaking liner is simply not acceptable.  And so, even though the technology is there, the technology has to be properly applied and it has to be made so that there will be no leaks.  This material cannot leak, or it will cause damage.”

Supporters of the Polymet mine point to Minnesota’s strict environmental laws regarding water quality and hazardous waste as safeguards against the kind of devastation wrought by other sulfide mining operations.  Nancy Schuldt, Water Projects Coordinator with the Fond Du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa wants to make sure those laws are enforced.

“We’re downstream and our section of the St. Louis River is also already impaired for mercury in fish tissue,” said Schuldt, “and we believe that the additional releases from this project will only make that problem worse and that’s actually not legal under the Clean Water Act.  They really ought not to be able to get a permit to discharge additional contamination that will make an existing impairment worse. We don’t really understand how the state of Minnesota, the MPCA, could be considering permitting a project that would violate water quality standards and make existing problems worse.”

The deadline for comment on the draft Environmental Impact Statement is fast approaching. Grand Portage Band Water Quality Specialist Margaret Watkins says, “We would really encourage people to have a good look at this because it’s important not only to the tribes because of the ceded territory, it’s a project that will ultimately impact Lake Superior, and this project sets the bar for the half dozen or so copper/nickel projects that are sort of waiting in the wings right now.”

The draft EIS for the Polymet mine is available for review on the Minnesota DNR website.

Comments from the public must be received by Wednesday, Feb. 3 at 4:30 p.m.

Comments can be mailed to Stuart Arkley, EIS Project Manager, Environmental Review Unit, Division of Ecological Resources, 500 Layfayette Road, St. Paul, MN 55155-4025.

Comments also may be emailed with NorthMet in the subject line.

 


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