By Gary G. Kohls, MD
PolyMet and the Rest of the Copper/Nickel Mining Industry are Lying to Us About the Safety of its Proposed Operations in NE Minnesota
Attention: Governor Dayton (and your staff):
Knowing your innate sense of fairness and your sincere desire to do the right thing for the people of Minnesota, please take a few minutes (disregarding all the corporate lobbyists that are bugging you 24/7) and read the following items. Be sure to view a couple of the short videos.
It has been slightly over a year since North America’s worst mining waste disaster occurred at Mount Polley, British Columbia.
It was on August 4, 2014 that the Imperial Metals mine had its massive tailings dam burst, polluting aquifers, many streams and lakes and ultimately the migratory Sockeye salmon-bearing Fraser River, the longest river in British Columbia. The Fraser flows for 854 miles emptying into the Georgia Strait and the Pacific Ocean at the city of Vancouver.
Typical for such catastrophic mining industry failures, the Harper government of Canada tried to cover up the disaster and most of us on either side of the border were made unaware of the event. Thus, this disaster was censored out of both Canadian and American consciousness by a co-opted media that utterly failed to adequately report on it.
Immediately below are the links to two dramatic videos that were readily available to news agencies, but which were essentially not reported on, published or shown on the evening news of either local or mainstream media outlets (including Duluth’s own WDIO-TV, which has regular promotional blurbs for the mining industry on its evening newscasts).
Imperial Metals of Vancouver admitted that they had been dumping the following toxic metals into the Mount Polley slurry (aka “slime”) pond in the years leading up to the failure of the earthen dam. The list of toxic substances immediately below is taken from Environment Canada’s website
The list of metallic contaminants that were dumped in the tailings pond includes: Lead, Arsenic, Nickel, Zinc, Cadmium, Vanadium, Antimony, Manganese, and Mercury.
These 9 heavy metal contaminants in the slurry at Mount Polley are highly toxic and have no safe levels in drinking water or in the human or animal body. They are also lethal to plant life.
Imperial Metals also admitted to dumping the somewhat less toxic minerals into the tailings pond. That group included Zinc, Cobalt, Copper, Phosphorus and Selenium, minerals can be beneficial to living organisms, but only in nano- or micro- concentrations. All five are toxic in large concentrations.
It is important to recall that whatever toxins didn’t flow into the lakes and, ultimately into the ocean, settled into the ground water, which can never be de-toxified by any known process. (Parenthetically, it is important to know that the aquifer under drought-afflicted Los Angeles, CA was permanently poisoned decades ago by various polluting industries. This large source of once pure and very drinkable water can never again be used for human consumption. Hence LA’s reliance on snow melt from distant mountain ranges.
Here are the links to two dramatic videos of the Mount Polley tailings “pond” failure:
And here is an important video of an experimental tailings dam breach that can happen at any earthen dam:
And, here is a useful quote from “ALL tailings “ponds” are a problem. If they don’t breach and spill massive amounts of toxic sludge into the environment like at Mount Polley, they leach that contamination slowly, poisoning the waters and lands around them.”
For more sobering information on the Mount Polly environmental catastrophe, go HERE.
I attach an important article that was written for a mining industry website. It was entitled “Catastrophic Mine Waste Spills Increasing in Frequency, Severity and Cost World-wide”
It was posted on July 29, 2015
Here are two important quotes from the article:
“Mining companies are unable to point to a single sulfide mine that has operated and closed safely without polluting nearby waters.”
“Most catastrophic failures of tailings dams are the result of poorly-informed, consciously-made business and management decisions by mining companies who then refuse to accept the public loss and consequence of those decisions.”
July 29th — On the 1st anniversary of North America’s worst mining waste spill, a new interdisciplinary analysis reveals that such catastrophic spills are increasing in frequency, severity and cost. The Risk, Public Liability, and Economics of Tailings Storage Facility Failures article shows that modern metal mining techniques have driven the creation of increasingly risky mine waste facilities, enabled by regulators that have failed to require best practices to minimize financial and environmental risk.
In the wake of the Mount Polley tailings dam failure in British Columbia one year ago, Lindsay Newland Bowker, Director of Bowker Associates, Science & Research In The Public Interest and David Chambers, Ph.D., a mining technical specialist, co-authored the report whose primary findings include:
· The rate of serious tailings dam failures is increasing. Half (33 of 67) of serious tailings dam failures in the last 70 years occurred in the 20 years between 1990 and 2009.
· The increasing rate of tailings dam failures is propelled by, not in spite of, modern mining practices. The increasing rate of tailings dam failures is directly related to the increasing number of TSFs (Tailings Storage Failures) larger than 5 million cubic meter capacity necessitated to allow the economic extraction of lower grades of ore.
· 11 catastrophic failures are predicted globally from 2010 to 2019. Predicted total cost of these 11 failures is approximately $6 billion.
· The average cost of these catastrophic tailings dam failures is $543 million. Regulator attempts to recoup cleanup costs from mining operators reveal — through court records and other official documents — dollar totals for cleanup and recovery.
· Mining companies cannot afford, and cannot secure insurance to cover, the costs of catastrophic failures: Losses, both economic and ecological, are in large part either permanent and non-recoverable, or recovery — to the extent physically possible — are funded by public monies.
“More mining waste disasters like Mount Polley are inevitable,” said Chambers. He continued, “If mining practices continue as usual, we are going to see more severe spills, more frequently, that will cost the public hundreds of millions to billions of dollars to clean up.”
“Our research shows that most catastrophic failures of tailings dams are the result of poorly-informed, consciously-made business and management decisions by mining companies who then refuse to accept the public loss and consequence of those decisions,” said report co-author Lindsay Newland Bowker. She continued, “Regulatory systems also contribute by not recognizing deviation from accepted practice and the unfolding of financial risk as it evolves escalating environmental risk to a level of public disaster.”
“As a result of the Mount Polley investigation, mining companies and regulators know they have to change mine waste disposal practices to minimize the risk of future disasters,” said Chambers. He continued, “Unfortunately, as evidenced by the recent approvals for mines in the Alaska/British Columbia transboundary area, they are failing to do so.” Mining tailings are the waste left over after metal ore has been processed. They are disposed of by dumping behind huge earthen tailings dams. On August 4, 2015, the Mount Polley Mine failed, releasing an estimated 25 million cubic meters of waste into the Fraser River watershed.
What happens when a tailings dam bursts and flows into a normal river. The heavily contaminated sludge from Brazil’s worst environmental disaster (Nov 2015) at the Samarco iron mine. The massive volume of toxic sludge entered the Rio Doce (ironically, “doce” means “sweet” in Spanish. The toxic fluid flowed all the way to the Atlantic Ocean killing everything in its path. Samarco is co-owned by mining giants, Vale (Brazilian) and the largest mining company in the world, BHP Billiton (British-Australian). Northern Minnesotans, Native Americans, sportsmen, environmentalists and folks who need clean water need to understand that such a catastrophe could destroy the aquifers nearby, Birch Lake, the BWCA, the Partridge River, the Embarrass River, the St. Louis River and Lake Superior.
And here is an important article containing important basic science information about sulfide mining. It comes from the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy (MCEA).
A new type of mining is under consideration for Northern Minnesota. Exploration for sulfides such as copper, nickel, gold, platinum, and others has begun and one mining company hoped to get a state permit by 2014. However, unlike taconite mining, when the sulfides are exposed to water and air, they produce sulfuric acid. Sulfide mines throughout the U.S. have left terrible contamination of lakes, rivers and groundwater with the acid and heavy metals.
MCEA is carefully monitoring PolyMet’s proposal for a new sulfide mine near Hoyt Lakes. MCEA is concerned about how the mine will prevent metals and sulfides in massive piles of waste rock from turning into sulfuric acid and leaching into nearby waters years, or even decades, from now. MCEA is also skeptical that a strip mine, which is being proposed instead of an underground mine, is necessary. Some of the risks associated with sulfide mining include:
Sulfide mining is a risky proposition. Commonly, states find themselves exchanging perceived short-term economic gains for long-term costs to water quality and the environment. In fact, mining companies are unable to point to a single sulfide mine that has operated and closed safely without polluting nearby waters.
– Acid Mine Drainage – metals are typically embedded with sulfides. Sulfides, while generally harmless underground, can become highly acidic when exposed to air and water at the surface. One study found that, among modern mines in the US that predicted that no acid mine drainage would occur, 89% of those mines did have acid mine drainage during operations or after closure.
– Sulfates – sulfates are harmful to native wild rice, an important economic and cultural resource in Minnesota. Sulfates can also be harmful to other sorts of aquatic plants. Researchers report that areas exposed to high sulfate levels often turn to monocultures as very few plants are able to survive. Modeling at the PolyMet site shows that water running off the mine features will be hundreds or even thousands of times the safe level for wild rice.
– Mercury – sulfates encourage the absorption of mercury into fish and aquatic plants. According to the Minnesota Department of Health, one in ten newborns on the North Shore of Minnesota already have unsafe levels of mercury in their blood. Mercury is a neurotoxin that can affect fetal development. This is a significant public health issue that Minnesota cannot ignore.
– Other heavy metals – Heavy metals including arsenic, copper, nickel and lead that are toxic to fish and plants and harmful to humans may also be present at a mining site at high levels.
Dr Kohls is a retired physician from Duluth, MN, USA who writes a weekly column for the Reader, Duluth’s alternative newsweekly magazine. His columns often deal with the dangers of corporatism and other movements that threaten American democracy, civility and longevity. Many of his columns are archived at http://duluthreader.com/articles/categories/200_Duty_to_Warn