Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

SULFIDE MINING

Lawyer cites PolyMet “secrets and lies”

Water Legacy’s Paula Maccabee speaks to Ely’s Tuesday Group

Keith Vandervort
Posted 10/7/15

ELY – As the PolyMet copper/nickel mining proposal moves through the environmental review process, one opponent is convinced there is too much misinformation being passed out as fact.

Paula …

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SULFIDE MINING

Lawyer cites PolyMet “secrets and lies”

Water Legacy’s Paula Maccabee speaks to Ely’s Tuesday Group

Posted

ELY – As the PolyMet copper/nickel mining proposal moves through the environmental review process, one opponent is convinced there is too much misinformation being passed out as fact.

Paula Maccabee, WaterLegacy’s advocacy director and legal counsel, presented information about the PolyMet sulfide mine project’s pollution threats this week at the Tuesday Group in Ely.

Since 2009, Maccabee has focused on the fight over plans to mine copper, nickel and other precious metals from land very close to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Her concern that mainline environmental organizations weren’t working hard enough to oppose the project prompted her and other activists to form the nonprofit organization WaterLegacy with the goal of stopping Toronto-based PolyMet from mining in Minnesota.

It is estimated that the Duluth Complex geologic formation in northeastern Minnesota could contain up to four billion tons of precious metals.

The PolyMet project has arguably grown into the biggest environmental controversy in the state. More than 50,000 public comments were submitted to state regulators when the Preliminary Environmental Impact Statement Draft was released, the most ever for any project in state history.

In her presentation, “Sulfide Mining in Minnesota – Secrets and Lies,” she described what she sees as many critical secrets and outright lies in PolyMet’s plan.

“The track record of sulfide mining in a water-rich environment like Minnesota is 100-percent failure,” she said. “Why are we so focused on PolyMet? The mining companies admit that they are the snowplow behind which all the others plan to go.”

Secrets and lies

Maccabee listed her current top seven PolyMet “secrets and lies” based on her study of thousands of pages of documents.

“No one denies that there will be north flow from the mine site eventually into the Rainy River basin,” Maccabee said. “PolyMet contends that any directional flow will be south and that is a lie. Look at the geology and it is not unreasonable to assume that there will be flow northward. In the area that is immediately north of the PolyMet mine site, the groundwater is at a lower level. Basically, water flows downhill.”

“Second, there are some interesting secrets and lies about wetlands destruction. It is a much greater potential than anyone has admitted to,” she said. The PolyMet project will impact almost 1,000 acres of wetlands. “What is amazing is that in the plans that the agencies are allowing there is no prediction at all of how many hundreds or thousands of acres of wetlands will be drained and impaired or destroyed,” she said.

PolyMet is claiming that there is a low likelihood of connection between the bedrock and the wetlands, and a low likelihood or weak connection between the surface and the bedrock, according to Maccabee.

“In order to come up with this important conclusion, you and I would have thought that there were dozens of tests, on the porous rock, on the non-porous rock and they would have figured it out because this is so important for pollution and the survival of wetlands,” she said. “There was one test done for the entire PolyMet project. It lasted 30 days and it was located on non-porous rock.”

The big lie

Her favorite “big lie” from PolyMet is the polluted seepage capture assumptions the company developed. “They’re claiming that their four-and-half square-mile tailings basin will collect 99.5 percent of all the seepage,” she said. “That is the big lie on which this whole process rests. It is completely irresponsible for the current environmental review not to predict what happens to the pollution if that capture is not as perfect as PolyMet would like to hope.”

The potential for dam failures and spills have not been adequately addressed either, according to Maccabee. “There is no dam-failure analysis in the PolyMet EIS, even if you wanted to read all 3,000 pages, and you also won’t find even an analysis of minor spills.”

The consideration of any alternatives to the mining proposal is also a not-so-well-kept secret. “A lot of people say they are doing the best they can and it will be a modern mine,” she said. “The truth is, they have rejected the best available technology and what they’ve done is a bargain basement approach to mining without liners, without dry sack tailings, and other precautions.”

Maccabee said she recently discovered another lie about PolyMet’s pilot testing a reverse osmosis system. “They have not pilot-tested any sulfide mine seepage,” she asserted. “The only testing they did was a very small test focused primarily on sulfate and they only tested taconite seepage. We’re going into this first-ever project in the state of Minnesota with a blindfold over our eyes.”

Lake Wobegon lie

“In Minnesota we’re all above average,” Maccabee said. “And until I started working on mining I actually believed it. In many areas, Minnesota is above average. We do have good healthcare. We do have a lot of things in this state which are great.”

Minnesota’s strict environmental standards and regulatory enforcement have been called the best in the whole United States. “The truth is, our standards have not ever been enforced,” she said. “The Legislature actually made a law this year saying they can’t be enforced, which is a violation of the (federal) Clean Water Act.”

Maccabee noted that the state has many expired permits, particularly for mining compnies. And many permits are “monitor only, and have no standards for sulfates,” she said.

Earlier this year, WaterLegacy filed a petition to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to strip Minnesota of the authority to regulate mining pollution “because of the terrible failures” in permitting and enforcement in the mining industry.

Maccabee said she expected the EPA to sit on their complaint for the next several years. Instead, “I got a phone call in three weeks and we are working with the EPA right now in this investigation because they are concerned about the efficacy of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency in protecting our waters. If the state of Minnesota can’t get it right for taconite, which we all know is less toxic, how in the world can we even consider trusting the MPCA with sulfide mining?” she asked.

For her efforts to force a clean-up of mining pollution, Maccabee made the cover of Minnesota Lawyer this week.

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