A billion reasons why PolyMet debate misses the point

PolyMet seeks to use the old LTV Steel processing plant, formerly the Erie mine, near Hoyt Lakes for use as a copper-nickel mine processing facility. (PHOTO: Joel Dinda, Flickr CC)

“Look here, now!” the North-Going Zax said, “I say!
You are blocking my path. You are right in my way.
I’m a North-Going Zax and I always go north.
Get out of my way, now, and let me go forth!”

“Who’s in whose way?” snapped the South-Going Zax.
“I always go south, making south-going tracks.
So you’re in MY way! And I ask you to move
And let me go south in my south-going groove.”
~ Dr. Seuss, “The Zax”

Time. It’s all we have. Some of us get more than others, but we all possess only so much.

So why do we spend so much of it arguing about PolyMet?

Of course, the answer from Northern Minnesotans comes quickly and broadly. “”We must defend our way of life.” But what does that mean? Will that “way of life” bring consciousness of our finite natural world, response to economic trends, or a specific kind of labor for pay? Perhaps all of these, or none.

Essentially, people argue about whether or not our long dead ancestors or unborn descendants are real people to be taken seriously. This argument, by design, may never be resolved. It is a fallacy.

To me, PolyMet is a business proposition. There are risks and rewards. One one hand, we face a new kind of mining, one that poses different environmental risks and furthers regional dependence on a commodities economy. On the other, we see prospects for new jobs and domestic sources for vital minerals that people use every day.

Considering the merits of PolyMet, we must recognize that it will be a smaller mine than many of the taconite plants so venerated in our Iron Range economy. Employment estimates on proposed projects are nearly always inflated, but we might expect about 200 people to work at the PolyMet mine. Good jobs, probably. Nonferrous metals trade with much more volatility than iron, too. So that mine might be up and down a lot, not that that this necessarily fazes those of us who live here.

And yes, the mine will be located in the water rich environment of Northeastern Minnesota, using a process that leaves more risk of long term contamination of ground water. Technology exists to mitigate these risks, though we lack data on how well it will work over long periods of time.

So, will PolyMet happen?

If the answer is yes, we begin what is essentially a science experiment coupled with an economic negotiation. New mining technology will be tested on a commercial scale, producing data that will inform future mining practices. We will then negotiate — as a people, through our elected government — with the coming company, almost certainly not named PolyMet. How will this ore be taxed? How many workers will be employed and what will they be paid?

So far, most arguments in favor of PolyMet assume all of this will transpire to the benefit of everyone. But that’s not resolved by any means. Our negotiating tactic so far has been “Please, come here. We’ll try to change the laws to suit you.” So we have very little room to haggle.

If the answer is no, believe it or not, life will go on. We still have a productive iron mining industry that badly needs attention. Value-added iron products and the potential of new forms of low grade manufacturing at the site of our iron mines could provide as many or more jobs than PolyMet ever could. In any event, automation ensures that a majority of our people will not work in mines regardless. That’s true now and has been for decades. This fact is why our region’s economy feels depressed.

PolyMet will receive its permits. There will be some squalling, some legal wrangling. But those permits will come. The Mesabi Daily News will run a Pearl Harbor headline. Politicians will polish their golden shovels in anticipation of next year’s campaign photo.

And then, time.

Even now, we can see that it could be years before a company invests nearly $1 billion into a project that, as of last month, only suggested a small rate of return at current metal prices. Considering we’re in a good economy now, one that has maintained a steady demand for metals, that’s not good.

This could change, of course. But how long have we waited for other projects to gain investment necessary to build new plants? Think of Nashwauk’s former Butler Taconite site, and the drama there. Think of how U.S. Steel and Cleveland-Cliffs have struggled to invest in their own existing properties amid rising corporate debts and competition. This business is terrifying and complicated.

This is not to say it can’t happen, only a plea for logic. And a plea for some unity, however strained it might need to be.

Northern Minnesota has plenty of problems, but also plenty of resources and people who can solve them. If it’s not abundantly clear yet, know that we are many, many years from copper-nickel mining in Northern Minnesota. That’s as close to a fact as this debate can muster.

Meantime, we have a lot of work to do in building our workforce for an information-driven economy. Our communities need care. Our children need education. We must protect one another in body and spirit. We simply can’t afford to wait ten years for a largely unpredictable mining prospect.

Let us have this conversation. But let us not become Dr. Seuss’s north-facing and south-facing Zax, too stubborn to see the world changing all around us.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, April 15, 2018 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.


  1. This piece contains a lot of truth, and carries on themes that Aaron Brown has been stating since I’ve been reading him. But there is a huge vagueness to the arguments one hears from pro-mining politicians. Instead of yapping in generalities, they ought to take a look at the draft “permit to mine” what was out for public comment. I won’t say read it all because it’s over 4000 pages, but it contains a lot of specifics about what Polymet *says* it wants to do, and what DNR proposes to allow. As I read it, DNR doesn’t propose to require safer tailings storage, etc. And I’ve never heard a Metsa, or a Bakk, or a Tim Walz, or any other mining-promoter pol ask that improved practices be used, or show knowledge of what those might be. The plain reality is that the facility that would be built and operated would not be the safest that technology could provide, but the cheapest and dirtiest and most unsafe that could be permitted. No wonder “unity” is not available.

  2. Paul Ojanen says

    The mine will operate under the principles of maximizing profit by maximizing externalities. This we have already seen by it’s various proposals. In the end, all future environmental and social costs will end up the responsibility of the public and community. They will, like every closed taconite plant, declare bankruptcy of the local LLC ( it is a subsidiary corporation) to minimize obligations and create a legal maelstrom to avoid responsibility. This is an economic foundation of many mining projects, where profitability exists only by walking away to eliminate the future obligations. Even in it’s current “safe” form, its consultant acknowledges surface water treatment will last 500 years at minimum. It is also a largely publicly driven project, driven and supported by the state and local officials, many of them hoping to personally benefit in some way. It is, essentially, a project that treats the public and nature as nothing more than expendable colonial resources to be extracted and used. That is what WILL happen.

  3. independant says

    I wish environmental groups would work together with local pro-mining groups. Local pro-mining groups are filled with citizens who every day live and recreate in the same waters and forest that the environmental groups are concerned about. Wouldn’t it be great to have an advisory board made up of citizens who all want to both protect the local environment and help facilitate local economic opportunities. This group could perhaps have access to real time monitoring data and mitigation action plans from construction through reclamation and have a voice. If environmental groups want to do more than just block all development of new mining they should partner with local folks in the mining industry and progress together.

    • The only problem with an advisory group is the anti mining people don’t want mining. Period. They won’t move to the center. Period. How can one mitigate issues when one side refuses to accept reality? If and when an advisory group is formed both sides had better be ready to give something up .

      • independant says

        I agree with you Roger. My observation over the past decade is that the environmental groups have no intention of working with anyone to make a project better. As of now they have only expressed an interest in stopping projects completely. It will be the anti-mining environmental groups that will lose out on a great opportunity to be involved.

        • Another problem with this idea is that the anti-BWCAW crowd won’t admit that as proposed this mine is a bad deal. It will pollute and this permit needs to be denied. 500 years of water treatment is longer than we have been a country and the expectation is that the water treatment will continue for that long at this future super fund site. How can anyone think that acceptable? And yet, they still want it.

          • independent says

            So your contribution to the conversation is deny beneficial economic development and deny corrections to legacy issues from decades ago. Mercury discharge from the property site will actually decrease if Polymet develops the project.

  4. Paul Ojanen says

    There is a simple reason. You cannot make this project “better.” This is not a cake recipe trying to replace sugar. This is a for profit mine project which will impact water quality for hundreds or thousands of years. That is if the current plans are correct, and they are based on a ton of assumptions. Those assumptions include an international conglomerate that has violated the law around the world acting good faith. And they won’t. Because they never do. It isn’t in their financial interest to do so.

  5. Paul Ojanen says

    If you think this project will not hurt anything, then all supporters should agree that they or their descendants will be held financially and criminally responsible for any pollution or environmental damage in the future. You will also agree to be responsible for moving those who came to the community after the mine is closed. You will be responsible, aka you will have skin in the game. That’s the problem…none of the project promoters or the corporations are actually bound to be held responsible. Perhaps you supporters should start an organization doing that, and bet your finances on the careful development and closure of the project if you are so sure.

  6. independant says

    Paul, every day of your life your actions or consumption decisions “hurt” something. To have the criteria be “will not hurt anything” for a development or project to move forward in silly. Lets talk like adults and discuss the impacts and the methods of mitigation. As you stated this is not baking a cake. However to state that constructive input cannot make a project “better” just tells me you don’t have any project experience. I have seen constructive input make projects “better” almost every single day of my working career. As far as having skin in the game, I live about 7 1/2 miles down stream on the St. Louis river watershed and my family drinks from a sand point well near the shore and we eat fish that we catch. I’m right in the middle of it

  7. Paul Ojanen says

    Actually I used to review projects, evaluate and order reclamation and was also part of the permitting process including being the administrator for state wetland law in that area. So, I might just have some experience and expertise regarding this issue. And, that knowledge ,expertise and experience inform my opinion which is based completely on historical and empirical observation. I have also observed similar operations in other locations and the result has always been the same. In this case, there are consequences that once you expose the sulfide bearing rocks in those quantities, there are no technical fixes both because of size and lifetime of reactivity. Even in the best case scenario, the projects own consultant, basing their evaluation on that model with assumptions that are questionable, states that water will require treatment for at minimum 500 years. Lets look at 500 years ago…Cortez had not landed in Mexico yet. Quebec would not be founded for another century. The dominant civilization in the south-central U.S. was Cahokia. In terms of bond, I have some Weimar republic Deutschmarks I wish to exchange. Money isn’t real…it is a check. I won’t even mention the history of corporate responsibility, especially on the range, where every single closure has been a bankruptcy and abandonment. In every single case. You cannot improve a project where the technical difficulties and reactive lifetime span centuries. Now, if you can go make another project better, for example Zortman-Landusky or the Berkeley Pit at Butte, I might be impressed. In the meantime the precautionary principle needs to be in play.

  8. Aaron, great post. What potential Polymet investors have to be looking at is that Polymet’s sole customer, Glencore, won’t buy product from Polymet if it is cheaper somewhere else. it may end up not being feasible economically (yet). Glencore is trying to lock in a guaranteed source without taking much risk of their own. Who is taking the risk instead? First on the line: Polymet investors who would need to put a fair share of potential profits into $1 billion in financial guarantees, which Minnesota experts have deemed necessary to mine responsibly. The current return on investment doesnt look so great.

    But what is backing up Polymet and those guarantees? Not Glencore. Glencore is structuring their exposure in the same way that Essar Steel did in Nashwauk.
    Contrast this to Cleveland Cliffs, which owns their operations outright and is willing to put their capital and corporate reputation at risk.

    A final thought: what would happen to IRRRB resources if the state legislature were faced with paying for a post-bankruptcy environmental cleanup on the Range?

  9. Gerry Mantel says

    Check out the happenings at the Eagle Mine, Marquette Co., Mich. And compare what was “promised” to what was “delivered,” with regards to the environment.

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