MAC: Mines and Communities

US: "Public" unable to address public hearing on new mine

Published by MAC on 2009-12-22
Source: Lake Superior Mining News

The PolyMet Mining Company proposes to operate its NorthMet Project at a former taconite processing facility, between the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Lake Superior. 

According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources' Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the project, both the Embarass and Partridge rivers, as well as groundwater, would be affected by mine pollution that is projected to exceed legal standards. 

The project would utilize roughly 6,700 acres of public land, procured in a land swap with the US Forest Service and would fill in large areas of wetlands (the project is located within the "Hundred Mile Swamp"), creating dangerous methylated mercury. 

The St. Louis River, which empties into Lake Superior at Duluth, would also be affected, while there are worries about the safety of a planned tailings dam.

Despite problems with the the mine, most Iron Range politicians, as well as building associations, strongly support the project, due to PolyMet's promise to bring new hardrock mining jobs to an area that once thrived on the mining and production of iron ore.

A main component of arguments for the project is  the claim that it will "green", producing metals in Minnesota that could be used to build wind turbines, solar panels, batteries and hybrid vehicles. 

However, opponents aren't buying this rhetoric, insisting that the amount of energy expended in mining what would effectively be 99% waste rock renders NorthMet an sustainable venture.

In a recent public meeting, ostensibly to comment on the company's draft environemntal impact statement,  members of the public were denied the oppoertunity to speak.

Public Unable to Speak at PolyMet Meetings

Gabriel Caplett

Lake Superior Mining News

12 December 2009

Hundreds of PolyMet Mining Company supporters were bussed to public meetings in Aurora and Blaine to provide comments on the company's draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) for the proposed NorthMet project. The organizing effort was combined with a public relations blitz of endorsements from Minnesota state and federal politicians - including the late endorsement of Senator Al Franken - the Minnesota AFL-CIO, construction groups and the Chamber of Commerce. Despite the large turnout, the public was unable to speak at either meeting.

"The ‘public hearings' didn't actually allow public comments to the audience," said retired miner, Bob Tammen. "The only oral comments allowed were by individuals to stenographers in a tightly monitored room separate from the auditorium. That meant that the only outside speakers allowed were Iron Range legislators."

In a new public hearing format, described as "enhanced" by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), public comments were severely restricted with the only speakers allowed to voice opinions on the project being staunch political supporters of PolyMet's NorthMet proposal. State Senator David Tomassoni and State Representative Thomas Rukavina gave speeches at the hearing in Aurora, on Wednesday, while State Senator Thomas Bakk chimed in at the Blaine hearing, the following day. Both Rukavina and Bakk are running for governor in the 2010 election.

Rukavina criticized the DNR and Governor Tim Pawlenty for silencing the public and used his unique opportunity to promote his gubernatorial campaign.

"If I were Governor," said Rukavina, "the public would have been allowed to speak."

Supporters claim PolyMet's NorthMet project would provide metals necessary for what is being called a "green economy" that produces wind turbines, hybrid vehicles, batteries and solar panels. Over the past decade, the mining industry has attempted, rather successfully, to recraft its dirty image through a massive global public relations effort to frame mining operations as synonymous with sustainable development.

"The new green economy is about to explode," said Senator Tomassoni, at the Aurora hearing.

Retired schoolteacher, Elanne Palcich disagrees and maintains that projects like PolyMet's are anything but environmentally friendly.

"Mining ninety-nine percent waste rock is not green and not sustainable," says Palcich. "This mine is only green for a few top investors who hope to make huge profits on the precious metals while the going is good."

A statement on PolyMet's website claims that "by providing these valuable metals while meeting strict environmental regulations, PolyMet will help U.S. consumers practice sustainability, as well."

Representative Rukavina said that metals from the NorthMet mine would be used to create numerous "green" products.

"Whether you support this project or have concerns, no one will dispute that we need these metals," said Rukavina.

But Bob Tammen says the metals shouldn't come from water-rich Minnesota.

"Every Polymet meeting I've been to has a coffee pot but nobody says we should grow coffee in Minnesota because we use it here," said Tammen. "We aren't a great area for growing coffee; likewise, we aren't a great area for mining copper. We're all wetlands."

"I'm probably more against it because of the economics than environmentally," Tammen told the Mesabi Daily News. "Historically, any region that relies on resources and mining does not do as well as other areas. People just sit around and wait for the mining companies to provide some jobs that come and go,'' Tammen said.

Others have concerns coming from an environmental and public health standpoint. After reviewing the DEIS, the Friends of the Boundary Waters has outlined some of the more major environmental and public health concerns with PolyMet's proposal on their website. According to the group,

Al Trippel, an environmental consultant with Environmental Resources Management (ERM), based out of London, England, gave a presentation on PolyMet's DEIS. The Minnesota DNR hired Trippel's firm to conduct the "third-party" assessment of PolyMet's project, not the first time Trippel has been promoted as an independent source.

Trippel acted as Aquila Resource's representative throughout Michigan's "Part 632? statute and rules process that crafted legislation regulating the metallic sulfide mining industry. Trippel is currently on Aquila's payroll, and was responsible for conducting baseline environmental studies necessary prior to submitting a mine application for the company's proposed "Back Forty" project, located along the Menominee River, in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. In December 2008 Trippel gave a presentation, in Menominee, Michigan, that was advertised by Aquila, in a local newspaper, as being held "in response to public requests for unbiased, educational, fact-driven information from an expert."

While DNR, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and US Army Corps of Engineers staff were on hand to answer public questions, the US Forest Service, an agency cooperating on the DEIS, was not available at the public meetings.

Forest Service involvement in the PolyMet proposal is significant. In order to open the NorthMet project, the company must either secure a controversial land exchange with the Forest Service or rely on a bill introduced by US Representative Jim Oberstar and US Senator Amy Klobuchar that would allow PolyMet to directly own 6,700 acres of the Superior National Forest. The move would also eliminate requirements requiring consultation and cooperation with Native American tribes, under an 1854 treaty with the US government.

In addition to the land exchange bill, PolyMet may also benefit from a revolving door relationship between state pollution enforcement agencies and the mining industry.

Brad Moore, recently the commissioner of the MPCA, now works for Barr

Engineering, a Minneapolis-based consulting firm working with PolyMet, while Ann Glumac, former deputy MPCA commissioner, is assisting PolyMet as a consultant.

In 2007 Franconia Minerals hired former Director of the state DNR's Division of Lands & Minerals, William Brice, as the company's Director of Government & Community Relations. Franconia is currently exploring a deposit directly underneath Birch Lake, which feeds into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

For information on providing public comment - due by February 3, 2010 - please visit the Minnesota DNR's PolyMet page.

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