Paper shows PolyMet runoff could reach BWCA after all

(IMAGE: PolyMet Mining Company)

(IMAGE: PolyMet Mining Company)

While the proposed nonferrous Polymet mining project near Hoyt Lakes nears the end of its environmental review process, questions remain about the speed with which it could receive permits. One of the most fascinating developments I’ve seen recently is this Marshall Helmberger story in last week’s edition of the Tower Timberjay.

According to a June 18, 2015, letter from the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC), one of the cooperating agencies on the decades-long study, Barr Engineering, the PolyMet contractor that actually ran the water flow model used in the study, made fundamental miscalculations, rendering the results of this key element of the environmental study invalid. Barr works as a consultant for PolyMet, yet the lead agencies have relied heavily on its technical work throughout the environmental review process.

GLIFWC, which represents 11 Indian bands in Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin, maintains its own scientific research staff. The agency, based in Odanah, Wis., is the only entity, other than Barr Engineering, which has actually run the MODFLOW model, a highly complex computer program for determining water flow through the environment.

The model’s results were used to make a number of key predictions in the PolyMet EIS, including that any potential contaminant flow from the mine site would move south and away from the BWCAW.

But GLIFWC’s Environmental Section Leader John Coleman, in his June letter, says his agency’s own model run shows dramatically different results, and points to the primary contaminant flow running north, into the Peter Mitchell pits, a series of taconite pits operated by Northshore Mining, located high on the Laurentian Divide, near Babbitt. The pits, which sit about a mile north of the proposed PolyMet mine, currently discharge in several directions. Upon closure, however, all of the discharge is slated to enter Birch Lake, part of the Kawishiwi River, a major BWCAW watershed.

In other words, one of the longstanding claims by PolyMet, that the discharge will flow into Lake Superior, not the BWCA, might be wrong. Or if not wrong, worthy of further study. More importantly, if you read Helmberger’s full story, you realize that the real problem here is that the data engineers use to predict these matters is sometimes drawn from single sources, not multiple reviews over time. No, that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily wrong, but I was actually surprised to read this. I had assumed that claim was much more solid.

Now, before everyone starts spouting their favorite pro-mining or anti-mining rhetoric (not that I can stop you), know that this is the kind of thing that will end up in court. That means delays outside the power of executive or legislative powers.

Al Jazeera America posted an in-depth story by Stephanie Pearson about the proposed mines in Northeastern Minnesota last week. Pearson focused on the divisive nature of the debate in Ely, where Twin Metals is the project in question. I thought her explanation of the situation from an outside point of view illustrates important elements at play:

The intensifying debate over metallic sulfide-ore mining in Minnesota boils down to an unfortunate geologic irony. The region contains the nation’s most irreplaceable freshwater resources, including Superior National Forest, which holds 20 percent of the fresh water in the U.S. National Forest system; the Boundary Waters, which are categorized by the State of Minnesota as “outstanding resource value waters”; and Lake Superior, the largest and least polluted of the Great Lakes, which holds 10 percent of the world’s fresh surface water.

These resources drain in three directions and sit directly on top of or very near a geologic formation known as the Duluth Complex, an eyelid-shaped mineral deposit that begins southwest of Duluth  and extends in a 150-mile-long northeast arc. It reportedly holds four billion tons of copper, nickel, platinum, palladium, and gold that are worth more than one trillion dollars.

First, you see why people concerned with water, water resources and the outdoors are so passionate about the risk of new mining. Second, you see why people concerned with the economy and jobs are so passionate about the virtues of the same mining proposals. But because most of the region’s political powers have aligned with mining, people who live here often don’t see the issue as the dichotomy it really is. Instead, it’s “those radical enviros” who don’t care about the economic well-being of people who live here.

Again, I can’t stop people from screaming and yelling and talking past one another. I don’t intend to change anyone’s opinion of nonferrous mining in this post. But it’s pretty plain to see a lengthy court battle coming in the event permits are issued. That means winning over investors will be a challenge.

And in case the history of the Iron Range escaped you investors pull the strings to make things happen. Or not. My concern with new mining projects is not that there is no way to do it right, but that we do not know who the investors will be or whether they will be as committed to “doing this right” as the people making the promises now.

Anyway, you don’t have to take my word for it. Just wait and see for yourself.


  1. Independant says

    Endless debate and bomb throwing is their strategic path forward. Any wonder why it is so hard for us to attract even non-mining industrial development? What person or group would want to deal with a State that takes years or decades to make a decision that they can get in a fraction of the time in another State. Lets do everything in our ability to ensure things are done right and laws are fully monitored enforced but that can not and should not be an excuse to never move forward. Have any of these “environmental” groups offered an alternate plan or any solutions that would improve or correct their claimed environmental issues to assist in progress towards an environmentally and economically positive solution? I have not personally seen or heard any from them.

    • Minnesota has little to do with any of this. As the article by Aaron makes clear, this is not going to be an issue of Minnesota clearances and permits. It is going to be a federal issue. As pointed out in later comments, the original hold up was due to the rejection of an environmental plan that even Polymet now admits was inadequate, but which was approved by the state only to be rejected by the Bush federal EPA. The new hold ups will be due to issues fought in federal courts, with the Ojibwa bands and environmental organizations and their lawyers and scientists on one side and mining interests, especially Glencore, and their lawyers and scientists on the other. The anticipated forthcoming Minnesota state approval of the environmental plan is merely a sideshow for the main event in the federal arena.

      • Independent says

        Incorrect. Minnesota state agencies play a huge role in “any of this”.

        • Yes, they have played a role. They have approved the permits once, been overturned by the EPA, and are expected to approve the permits again, but will face federal court actions in which they will be the defendants, on the same side as the mining companies.

          Their role in “any of this” has been to consistently back the Polymet positions throughout the process. They have allowed opponents to voice their concerns — perhaps that is upsetting you — but all their decisions have come down in favor of mining. It is the federal agencies, and in the future will be the federal court, that provides the negative impact on the proposals and the delays in the beginning of operations.

          However with the current world prices of metals even if the company were to be given the go-ahead they might build the facility but would be unlikely to bring it into operation, since they would lose money at existing metal prices.

  2. It isn’t the agencies or the “environmentalists” fault, whatever that term means. The first proposal, which got the lowest grade possible from the Bush administration EPA…I repeat, the Bush Administration EPA, was the first reason for the delay. In essence, what the proposal said was “We’re going to impact two rivers and make some jobs..Please approve”. So that, of course, was returned. Since then, just like this latest result, myriad problems have been found. Your problem is that you assume the project must be approved no matter what and anyone who questions it is merely a naysayer. To your question…Why is this the only piece of economic development you seek? Yet another roller-coaster ride, this time from a multi-national that has the record of Glencore-Xstrata, which consists of pollution and killing opponents? That’s it? That is all you can think of? There is no other possible long-term investment strategy for the Range and NE Minnesota than handing over resources ? This is and has been the problem for decades, is that anyone connected with resource extraction is so used to ripping off the public is that they cannot see the way to making an honest living, much like the miners in the boom days who slept or got drunk while at work. They are so used to feeding at the public sow that removing the teat from the mouth causes an ear-bursting shriek..

    • Independent says

      That darn “Bush EPA”. Oh, I didn’t catch the part where you offered any suggestions to improve on the proposal and make this world class example of how we can mine the materials we (that means you) all use everyday for our ever growing green economy with great environmental safeguards and policies. Good thing all the Bureaucrats that make up the EPA are all different now that it is the “Obama EPA”.

  3. There is a serious flaw in this paper.
    The suggestion of the paper is that if the water level in a near by pit is lowered 300 feet then water from the Polymet property could run to the north. The water currently in that pit runs out through the BWCA. Therefore they said if you lower the water level in the pit the water from Polymet will run out through the BWCA. The problem being that if the water in the northern pit is lowered it will no longer run out at all.
    This is a major flaw in the theory that EVERYONE seems to have over looked.

  4. “We know how to do it [mining] right….” But after many years and millions of dollars the applicants haven’t presented a credible scenario for “doing it right,” and obvious, fundamental, errors keep turning up. Obviously, out of state investors are not going to push for what would likely be a much more expensive approach if the mine drainage were to be truly contained, if indeed it could be done. I think what we are seeing more and more clearly is that this is simply not a suitable place to do this sort of mining–the water resources are too valuable and too fragile–and the only reasonable answer is to “just say no.” As the enviros have been saying all along. If people would face up to this and focus their attention elsewhere the Range would be better off. (That’s how it looks to a non-Ranger.)

  5. This has been the play book for the “Go Green Gang” for decades…. More studies, more delays. Every group from friends of the loon to friends of the wolf have thrown a law suit at Polymet. It will continue even after the mine opens. Once Polymet passes the requirements to get permits, they NEED to get the permits. There are multiple agencies looking at this DNR, MPCA, EPA and many others, if Polymet meets their standards, it really doesn’t matter what friends of the snipe think. The Greenies just do not want mining in any fashion up here! Nothing will change that!

    • Or maybe “greenies” just know that the whole state will be paying for cleaning decades or even centuries after the mines close, the jobs are gone, and the companies manage to legally cease to exist. It’s actually not hard to change that. Just have the companies pay a damage deposit to pay for cleanup. If they take care of it all themselves, they get their money back. If they prefer to leave the problem behind, then at least the state has a pile of their cash already. They can have back whatever isn’t needed to cover the state’s costs. If the mining companies won’t give a deposit, then their intentions are clear.

  6. The downturn in the global commodities market means PolyMet’s investors at GlenCore are falling out of their billionaire-ness, and also it means the project is basically bad economics, even if it didn’t create lots of permanent toxic pollution. They missed the market cycle and now it should be scotched, and replaced with something sustainable like greenhouses full of legalized cannabis. Deal with it!

    Since some people only want mines for development, just put the greenhouses down in old mine pits. Call them cannabis mines, that’ll work for the uber-mining set 😉

    • Cannabis mines might be the ideal thing for that “unemployed brother-in-law” that people keep talking about in the mining discussions.

      Levity aside, realism means I need to cross to the other side on this particular argument. It is incorrect to assume that although the prices of metals are now low that there will not be a market recovery some day that would make non-ferrous mining in Northeastern Minnesota feasible again. Unless environmental concerns make costs of operation prohibitively high, the typical cyclic nature of commodity prices most likely means the mines will be potentially profitable at some time when increased demand drives prices back toward the levels that existed in 2010 or so. Twin Metals development is currently on hold as its parent corporation commits itself to operations elsewhere that are potentially profitable at current prices, but given the very low cost of credit at this time, it is likely that if permits are granted and survive court challenges PolyMet will begin building their facility a few years from now. Just as low interest rates make the notion of government spending on infrastructure a smart move right now, those same low interest rates make doing the capital expenditure for starting up the mine attractive right now even if the mining itself is not profitable now. Glencore is almost undoubtedly planning to do that with borrowed money (other people’s money is the mantra for modern business development,) and the current economic troubles make it likely that although there is no profitable market for the metals right now this is a good time to load up on borrowed money at historically low interest rates.. Every cloud has a silver lining, as they say.

  7. Since sulfide mining in Minnesota would produce 99% waste rock, 4 billion tons of metal would produce 400 billion tons of waste rock. This is the problem with turning the Duluth Complex into a sulfide mining district. There is no way to prevent or control the resulting pollution, let alone the desecration of the land.
    Is this really what we want for ourselves, for the future? Opening one sulfide ore mine opens the door for more mining–has our region ever been able to resist the control that mining has over our lives?

Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.