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Dayton looks for answers in mine tours

Says PolyMet decision ‘most momentous, difficult and controversial’

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 10/21/15

REGIONAL— When Gov. Mark Dayton tours mines in South Dakota and Michigan next week, he’ll be assessing operations at one of the oldest and one of the newest sulfide-based mines in the country. …

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Dayton looks for answers in mine tours

Says PolyMet decision ‘most momentous, difficult and controversial’


REGIONAL— When Gov. Mark Dayton tours mines in South Dakota and Michigan next week, he’ll be assessing operations at one of the oldest and one of the newest sulfide-based mines in the country. The visits are part of the due diligence for the governor as he contemplates whether the state of Minnesota should pursue permitting for PolyMet Mining’s proposed NorthMet mine near Babbitt once the environmental review process wraps up sometime next year.

“I want to see first-hand what the upside could be as well as what the downside could be,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of questions. ... This will be the most momentous, difficult and controversial decision I’ll make as governor.”

Accompanying the Governor on these visits will be Joanna Dornfeld, the Governor’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Legislative and Policy Affairs, Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr, Michael Liljegren, Mine Permitting and Coordination Supervisor for the DNR, and Dayton’s media director Matt Swenson.

First up on the governor’s itinerary is the Gilt Edge Mine, near Lead, S. D., which the governor will visit on Tuesday. It’s a gold and silver mine first opened in 1876. A Canadian company, Brohm Mining, last operated the mine from 1986-1999, before declaring bankruptcy, leaving behind a toxic stew of heavy metals and sulfates. At the urging of South Dakota officials, the federal Environmental Protection Agency declared the mine a Superfund site, which qualified the clean-up effort for federal funding.

Fifteen years later, that effort has made some progress. Through the use of an on-site treatment plant, the EPA has been able to bring surface water discharges close to compliance for most contaminants, although sulfate discharges of as high as 1,800 mg/l remain a significant problem. Currently, the sulfate-laden water is being stored and diluted as additional water becomes available at the site. Meanwhile, the EPA has yet to address the widespread soil, groundwater, and aquifer contamination that have been documented at the site. According to a 2012 EPA document, acid rock drainage from the mine site “has infiltrated the groundwater in the alluvial and bedrock aquifers. [It] also migrates from the pit lakes and underground mine workings into groundwater and leads to surface water discharges in some locations.”

Gov. Dayton chose the Gilt Edge Mine at the urging of opponents of the PolyMet project to highlight what they see as the threats posed by sulfide mining.

The governor will no doubt get a different perspective on Thursday, when he’s set to visit the new Eagle Mine, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, a mine recommended by PolyMet proponents. The Eagle Mine, an underground operation, began construction in 2011 and started ore production last year. It’s a high-grade copper and nickel deposit that Lundin Mining, the company that owns and operates the facility, expects will take eight-to-ten years to exhaust. Once depleted, Lundin’s reclamation calls for returning the site to its natural condition, with 20 years of water monitoring to determine if any acid drainage is occurring.

The Eagle Mine is tiny in comparison with the NorthMet deposit, with a total surface footprint of just 130 acres, including all of its surface buildings. While Lundin crushes ore on site, the actual processing is being done at the nearby Humboldt Mine. By contrast, the NorthMet mine site will encompass approximately 2,800 acres, including the open pits and waste rock stockpiles. As with the Eagle Mine, PolyMet plans to process its ore away from the mine itself.

While the Eagle Mine is a relatively small deposit, it is far richer than the ore at NorthMet, testing out at approximately 2.9 percent copper and 3.6 percent nickel. By contrast, the ore proposed for mining at NorthMet runs approximately 0.28 percent copper and 0.08 percent nickel, according to UMD geologist Jim Miller.

Unlike the Eagle Mine, which Lundin anticipates will not require ongoing water treatment, PolyMet’s NorthMet mine would require water treatment indefinitely, according to the draft EIS. PolyMet is not proposing, nor is the state of Minnesota requiring, that the NorthMet mine site be returned to a natural state once the ore is exhausted.

Minnesota Public Radio’s Elizabeth Dunbar contributed to this story


5 comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here

  • Interesting that the anti mining crowd chose a mine from the 1800's for the Governor to look at. It's like comparing surgery during the Civil War to modern surgery today, but so typical of them. Scare tactics is all they have left. Stop the whining start the mining!

    Friday, October 23, 2015 Report this

  • At the same time, not sure how a 1 year old mine is an automatic success story and comparable to the size and scope of Polymet as the article lays out. I assume the Gov is smart enough to realize that technology has evolved since the 1800's and is considering that in his "due diligence".

    Friday, October 23, 2015 Report this


    Thank you Pat yours is the voice of reason and logic.

    Saturday, October 24, 2015 Report this

  • snowshoe2

    I wonder if PolyMet and Twin mines should be tied together so much.

    They are different mining techniques in different sensitive areas. Different watersheds. Long term effects differ.

    The problem is if one is approved the other probably will be also.

    I think both should have to stand or fail on there own merits.

    I do question the long term commitment of each companies parent companies. Especially Polymets with Glencore the parent company has a terrible record worldwide on worker employee rights and pollution.

    Tuesday, October 27, 2015 Report this

  • snowshoe2

    This company started mining in 1986 and mined until 1999.

    Gilt Edge is one of six sites suggested by PolyMet opponents. (It wasn't their top choice; that was the Mount Polley Mine in Canada, where a tailings basin recently failed, spilling over a billion gallons of waste. Dayton said that site was too remote.)

    The 360-acre Gilt Edge Mine site is about 6 miles east of Lead, S.D. Amy Varland | SDPB

    In many ways, Gilt Edge is a poster child for mine opponents' worst fears.

    The Brohm Mining Company began mining in 1986. Thirteen years later the company went bankrupt.

    "We went to court to prevent them from leaving," said Bill Markley, administrator of the groundwater quality program at the South Dakota Department of Environment and Natural Resources. "But finally they ran out of money and disappeared and the state took over."

    Tuesday, October 27, 2015 Report this