Creative Development Alternatives to Copper Extraction in Minnesota

30 January 2014
By Guthrie Cunningham ’14
North Shore of Minnesota
North Shore of Minnesota

I first seriously considered the implications of new mining projects in Northern Minnesota when I met a group of activists while hitchhiking north after my first year at Carleton. I had been standing on the edge of town for a half hour or so when a woman in a rusty pickup with a dog and a daughter in the cab stopped and told me to jump in the back. Through the open cab window I strained to hear her voice above the wind explaining that she could get me as far as Two Harbors, but that there was a stop along the way. She was heading to a small women’s co-operative farm deep inland for a meeting where a group of activists were to discuss the possibility of the new mine.

By this time trouble had already been stirring as landowners disputed with prospecting mining crews who were sampling under their properties for metals. Although mineral rights are usually only a few dollars per acre, most private land owners in Minnesota do not own their own mineral rights and are not allowed to purchase them. These are mostly owned by other entities tied to the mining industry.

As the farm’s angora rabbits thoughtfully chewed grass in their big cages and horses puttered across the yard, the equally motley group of humans passed papers around and updated each other on the state of the matter, and I began to see both how complex and personal the issue is. Minnesota contains the largest known undeveloped copper-nickel deposit on earth. PolyMet, a Canadian mining corporation with no previous mining projects is proposing to build an open pit copper mine in Northern Minnesota. PolyMet is owned by the Swiss Glencore, which has a history of environmental, human rights, and labor violations.

Despite Minnesota’s relatively clean record of environmental protection, many landowners, hunters, fishers, and forest stewards are worried for the future of the region. Many from the Iron Range believe the mine will usher in an era of economic prosperity and hope to see it materialize. Copper and nickel are often embedded in rock that contains sulfide. When these metals are mined, the sulfide is left exposed to oxygen and water and sulfuric acid is created. In addition to any mining site pollution, the EPA’s Environmental Impact Statement on the project specifies that the acid runoff from the exposed rock will need continual monitoring and containment for a minimum of 500 years after the end of the mining operation. The United States, of course, is less than half as many years old. Yet the economic gain from the mine is expected to continue only for the next 20 years.

Of several hundred jobs that will be created, only a few will be able to go to local people, and PolyMet expects to source many employees from surrounding areas. PolyMet claims that its project will uplift the historically economically depressed Iron Range mining region of Minnesota. As a soon-to-be-graduating student, I felt I should check the “employment” tab on the PolyMet website, but it stated that they do not have any current job openings. Regardless, I would argue that the reason this area is economically struggling is precisely because it has housed invasive mining projects that have driven away other more progressive forms of economic activity.

My mother was among the initial wave of women in the United States to work for a mining company, as a miner. I have several friends and other family members who have worked for Cliffs mining company (formerly Reserve Mining) near my home on the North Shore of Lake Superior. None of the half dozen people I know who’ve worked for this company have ever said that they enjoy their work. A friend who still works there today referred to it as “a sentence.”

Clearly the majority of these jobs are not enviable. Even if some jobs are created and last for a few decades, I seriously question whether these are the kinds of jobs we want to be developing in Minnesota when we have the potential among us to develop a sustainable economy that thrives on clean, good jobs. As it is, the vast boreal forest opens itself for creative and sustainable human participation. The tourism industry, fishing, hunting, and artistic uses for nature have an economic impact that far outweighs anything mining has to offer both in dollars and non-monetary considerations.

Corporations like PolyMet paint a verdant picture of an economically uplifted region and a clean source of metals necessary for current American lifestyles. They complicate environmentalist objections by pointing out the use of copper in wind turbines, cell phones, and cars, claiming that it is a necessary part of American life. There are alternatives to continued extraction however. Copper recycling is a growing industry in America, and I know of more than a few people who would happily return to a world with fewer iPhones. Further support of invasive mining projects will only delay the inevitable restructuring of the American lifestyle to rely less on endless resource use and invest in recycling metals.

In many ways, the current debate only foreshadows significant conversations that Minnesota must have in the coming years. As a state, it is necessary to decide if this is the kind of industry that we want to dominate our landscape, or if there is more value inherent in wilderness and the range of economic outputs that can be achieved by working in tandem with its natural power, rather than continually extracting resources from it.

It is important to realize that even what we often visualize as untouched wilderness has been heavily influenced and altered. Several million pounds of fish come out of the lakes each year, and well over 100,000 deer are taken from the Northwoods during each year’s hunting season. Humans will always alter the environment they live in, but there are ways of operation that are much more healthful for us in the long term. The economic and cultural potential in this area is essentially limitless, if only we broaden our horizons to consider the myriad possibilities beyond the current version of the archaic attitude of limitless resource extraction.