The nitty gritty reality of NoMinn mining debate

Sometimes you get tired of explaining the same thing, over and over, so here is a haiku describing the political, economic and geological issue of our time on northern Minnesota’s Iron Range.

They say with new rocks,
mined clean, our kids prosper.
They speak truth, we hope.

People think that the issue of precious mineral mining in northern Minnesota comes down to “Jobs vs. the Environment.” Maybe it does in some ways. But, besides “jobs,” the central thrust of the argument to mine new minerals is two-fold:

  1. We can mine this stuff cleaner than ever before, nothing like those old mine sites that were closed down decades ago or ones that cause great damage today in other nations.
  2. There is so much mineral wealth down below northern Minnesota that we’d be stupid not to mine it; the world needs it and we can mine it cleaner (See #1). 

That’s the argument. And there’s news on this front. According to the Duluth News Tribune, PolyMet has run a successful test of its sulfate scrubbing technology. I’d be more comfortable if the picture didn’t look like a moonshine still in a shed somewhere, but it is at least something worth discussing. Bear in mind that a full scale implementation of this technology would need to be maintained for many years and with much more water at stake.

Meantime, not unsurprisingly, vast wealth estimates of these ore reserves (copper, nickel, palladium, etc.) are also being released, though interestingly even the optimists know that not all of the ore is economically feasible to mine.

That is, fundamentally, the crux of this situation. The bigger issue is not whether the pro-mining guy or the pro-mining guy who hates the EPA win the Congressional election, but rather whether the technology works and whether companies have the financial incentive to make a long-term investment in these new plants. Inevitable costs ahead include proving the very environmental and economic claims developers use to settle environmental opposition to their projects.

So, let’s prove it. Test it on a large scale with legitimate financial assurance against damages. The first permits go to the first company willing to do this. If that’s too expensive, perhaps these companies aren’t really committed to mining for more than just a few years, rendering all of this a tremendous misplacement of energy. That’s the conversation we should be having.


  1. Come on, Mr. Brown! You don’t believe that Polymet plans or intends to run ALL of the effluent that runs off its tailings for the next 2,000 YEARS through RO filters so they can get maybe 10 years of mining profits, do you? Those estimates are inflated to meet whatever the market is looking for. If you believe all that, then you probably believe that Glencore and Antofagasta and Rio Tinto will hire union labor in these mines, as they have never done anywhere, just as they have never mined sulfide ore “clean” anywhere. Just because they can, doesn’t mean they will.

  2. I don’t know. That’s what I believe. I don’t know what these mining companies are willing to commit to over the long haul. I’d like to know, which is precisely my point.

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