St. Louis River: New Threat from PolyMet

Lori Andresen and Elanne Palcich

As PolyMet’s proposed copper-nickel sulfide mine continues to push its way through the environmental review process, more environmental issues are being brought to light.

Due to the threat of PolyMet’s proposed copper-nickel sulfide mine, American Rivers listed the St. Louis River as one of the top 10 Endangered Rivers in the U.S. in April. The mine pit and processing plant would be located upon the headwaters of the St. Louis River watershed, which empties into Lake Superior at its estuary near Duluth, Minnesota and Superior, Wisconsin.

During the ten years following PolyMet’s Environmental Assessment, the Sierra Club North Star Chapter has supported a moratorium on sulfide mining in the water rich environment of northeast Minnesota. The copper-nickel mineralization of the Duluth Complex — a rock formation that underlies northeastern Minnesota between Lake Superior, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, and Lake Vermilion —is highly disseminated and low grade, with less than 1 percent metals. Mining this rock formation would result in 99 percent waste rock, including the fine ground tailings. Both waste rock piles and tailings leach toxic, heavy metals and acid mine drainage (AMD) into surface and ground waters.

The Sierra Club mining committee has been studying PolyMet’s mine plan since it was proposed, and we came to the conclusion that water modeling for the proposed mine project is woefully inadequate and ground water testing has not taken into account the fractured bedrock of the area.  The scale of mining leaving 99 percent waste rock is too monumental to manage for pollution control, and the value of our clean water is too great to put at risk.

In 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency gave PolyMet’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement a grade of EU-3, Environmentally Unsatisfactory-inadequate with many concerns about lack of water modeling. In 2015, the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission’s (GLIFWC) analysis of PolyMet’s water modeling for the final Environmental Impact Statement showed that ground water seepage at mine closure would flow north into the Rainy River watershed (Boundary Waters), thus displacing or concentrating pollution within the St. Louis River watershed — and putting pollution into an adjacent watershed.

The operation of a copper-nickel sulfide mine in northeast Minnesota would greatly contribute to the mercury/sulfate load that is already creating a problem in the St. Louis River. Methylmercury, which results from a biochemical reaction including mercury and sulfates, bio-accumulates in the food chain —affecting fish and the humans who eat fish. Already, 10 percent of the babies born along the North Shore of Lake Superior have high levels of mercury in their blood, potentially impacting brain development.

In another bio-chemical process, sulfates become sulfides which attach to wild rice roots, destroying entire wild rice beds in the most polluted areas, or greatly reducing plant yield in other stretches of the St. Louis River. Both fish and wild rice impacts affect the Fond du Lac, Grand Portage, and Bois Forte Bands of the Lake Superior Chippewa nation’s treaty rights, as well as affecting fishermen, resort owners, and local residents. As sulfates, mercury and other pollutants work their way downstream, they impact the health and economy of both the Fond du Lac Tribal nation and the citizens of Cloquet, Duluth, MN and Superior WI.

Of further concern are the loss of wetlands, destruction of wildlife corridors, and loss of public lands within Superior National Forest to a Canadian mining company whose major underwriter, Glencore, is taking a huge market hit, with shares falling approximately 60 percent over the course of the year.  How will a company under financial duress manage to treat water pollution at the proposed plant site for at least the next 500 years, as projected in the Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement?

In order for PolyMet to open pit mine on protected public land that is now part of Superior National Forest, the U.S. Forest Service is negotiating a convoluted land exchange that would involve the transfer of about 6,650 acres of federal lands from public to private ownership. The Forest Service failed to follow its own authority under the Weeks Act of 1911, which prohibits strip mining on land originally acquired by the Forest Service for watershed and forest protections; the Forest Service could have required PolyMet to develop an underground mine only. Instead, a  land exchange would allow PolyMet,  a foreign mining company, to destroy nearly 1,000 acres of wetlands and degrade over 6,000 acres of adjoining wetlands — adversely impacting the 100 Mile Swamp and its water filtration system, vegetation, habitat, and ecology.

Solutions to current mining pollution continue to evade our regulatory agencies.  If the highly disseminated sulfide mineralization of northeast Minnesota can ever be mined “safely,” it will have to wait; a synopsis of the North Star mining committee’s position is that we do not have the technology or the regulatory will in place to do so now. Nor have we, as a nation, incorporated the amount of recycling that would negate the need for the extreme mining and extraction of the highly disseminated low grade sulfide ores of Minnesota’s Arrowhead Region.

The iconic beauty and quality of the St. Louis River watershed is at risk for us and for future generations. Our agencies and leaders are ignoring clean water as a valuable natural resource. We have lost respect for the quality and character of Lake Superior itself and forsaken those who will follow.

Minnesotans have been standing up across the state in support of clean water. The citizens of our state have taken issue with pipelines, frac sand mining, and agricultural run-off. But at this very moment, the St. Louis River watershed is at a crossroad. Will we allow sulfide mining to take precedence over our water — or will we put a stop to PolyMet?

Continue to contact your state and national legislators and tell them PolyMet is not compatible with the clean water values of Minnesota and must be stopped.

Take Action

Submit your comment today! The Final Environmental Impact Statement has been released, and federal and state agencies are accepting objections from the public on PolyMet’s final mine plan, but only until December 14.

And please contact Governor Dayton at (651) 201-3400. Urge him to reject PolyMet, and ask that the 30-day comment period be extended.

Lori Andresen is Chair of the Mining Committee. Elanne Palcich is a volunteer leader with the Mining Committee.

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