Nonferrous Mineral Mining in Minnesota: An Issue of Science Policy

This is mainly about copper mining in a part of Minnesota that has previously seen extensive iron mining. Most mineral rights across Minnesota are owned by the state, which then may lease rights to miners. Recently, 31 nonferrous mineral leases were approved by the Minnesota Executive Council, which consists of Governor Dayton, Secretary of State Ritchie, State Auditor Otto, Attorney General Swanson, and Lt. Governor Prettner-Solon. It was a four to one vote with Otto voting no.

The reason that Rebecca Otto voted no is that she felt the science based policy justifying these leases was not fully developed, and that there are potential significant long-term effect that had not bee fully accounted for. Matt Ehling wrote a piece for the Star Tribute, reposted on Otto's state web site, which stated in part:

... During the comment period before to the vote, industry representatives framed the approval of the leases as just one part of a longer process. Lieutenant Governor Prettner-Solon offered similar sentiments, and stated that rigorous environmental oversight - along with public comment - would follow in the event that major exploration or mining project proposals were submitted.

Upon inquiry from Governor Dayton, Department of Natural Resource (DNR) Commissioner Tom Landwehr stated that such project proposals would constitute public information, but would generally not be made available to the public short of a Data Practices Act request. Governor Dayton then directed Commissioner Landwehr to affirmatively make any lease-related proposals available to the public.

The council’s lone “no” vote, State Auditor Rebecca Otto, stated that she had had “a revelation” early the morning of the meeting that informed her vote. “We have not done copper sulfide mining in this state yet,” said Otto. She expressed concerns about potential fiscal burdens associated with copper sulfide mining that might be placed on future generations. Secretary of State Ritchie expressed concerns about the process generally.

And in a Minnesota Public Radio interview with Cathy Wurzer, Otto explained:

My concern really boils down to the financial assurance that we're going to require. Really what that is is it's a damage deposit we're going to require from the mining companies so that if something goes wrong, that they are on the hook for the cleanup costs.

They're estimating 500 years of water treatment after operation at the PolyMet's mine. My concern, then, is how do we calculate the cost for that to make sure we get an adequate damage deposit. Five hundred years.

That's an awfully long time, so do we really know how to calculate these numbers right so that taxpayers aren't left with the cleanup costs after these mines close? And do we know what form of financial assurances to get? These companies quite often have gone bankrupt, and are taxpayers going to be protected if there's a bankruptcy? Severe weather events.

We've had more of those recently. Are we going to factor in the cost potentially of a severe weather event and what that could do?

So it's really about being proactive and preventative and making sure these companies have real skin in the game in their financial assurances that they must provide so that they're incented to get this right and don't damage our water quality and leave cleanup costs to the taxpayers.

Mining equals jobs and is good for the economy. But mining is one of the most environmentally destructive activities we undertake as a species, especially in terms of local effects. Also, mining is one of those industries that in the past has often been carried out, it seems, without proper attention to "external" costs, meaning the costs not paid by the mining companies and thus not on the hypothetical spreadsheet of inputs and outputs. In that interview, Otto was asked, "Those who support copper-nickel mining say we have more to gain financially than to lose with more jobs, tax revenue. As someone who has argued for protecting taxpayers, does that argument hold water for you?: Her reply:

It could. There could be gains. There could be loss. I've looked at U.S. Government Accountability reports kind of looking at the track record of this type of mining around the country, and quite often the taxpayers are left on the hook.

The devil is in the details on this. Minnesota does not have experience with this type of mining, we have not calculated these numbers before. I don't know that even with the mining we've got now we've gotten the financial assurances right, nor the right forms.

As a state there are things we don't know all the time and we've made mistakes. In this day in age with some of the pressures we have with the economy and people retiring, we must get this right and spend the time. Otherwise what we could end up doing is privatizing the gain and socializing the pain.

What Otto is looking for is not a way to stop mining, but rather, a way to address the ultimate, true costs of the operation especially as they would be incurred by taxpayers statewide (that is what the State Auditor does!). Meanwhile, industry is naturally looking for ways to externalize costs and thus maximize profits. The problem is that we don't know enough about the external costs, and it may be the case that the development of this economic activity is proceeding as though we do. This is an excellent example of well researched and developed science-based policy being very much needed, and at least one science-oriented elected official trying to see to it that this happens.

For Minnesotans, expect nonferrous mining to be an issue in several upcoming races. I hope that this does not become a slug-match between an unadulterated "pro-mining" stance and an unadulterated "anti-mining" stance because, surely, the science policy will be lost in such a fray. Let's try to do this right, which means doing it intelligently.

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Actually very much to be expected that the deposits would be found, after all if you go to the other side of the complex in the Keweenaw pennisula in MI you found copper (in fact the first copper boom in the US some silver and the like. Since the complex was a result of the attempted tearing apart of North America 1.3 billion years ago one could possibly expect that the deposits might also exist under the sedimentary cover down to Des Monies but would not be currently economic.

How can any company or anyone make guarantees on water filtration for the next 500+ years?

They can't, which is why there are Assrance Funds. But what is the sufficient sum to transfer to those funds?