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What will be Northern Minnesota’s Legacy?

September 12, 2011 By Frank Moe, Minnesota 2020 Contributor

For most Minnesotans, the northern part of the state means fishing, camping, hunting, canoeing and snowmobiling. Tens of thousands of Minnesotans are employed providing these outdoor opportunities.

Iron ore mining and forestry have also long been a part of Northern Minnesota and while significant conflicts have occurred between these industries and outdoor recreation, a relative balance has been achieved.

This balance may soon end. Several companies have applied for permits to mine other metals in Superior National Forest. Polymet’s is the furthest along in the permitting process. What’s most troubling is that its strategic partner and exclusive marketer for the metals it will mine (for at least the first five years of operation) is multinational mining giant Glencore.

The Swiss-based mining and commodities corporation has a legacy of human rights violations, massive environmental contamination, child labor atrocities, and leveraging political instability to maximize profits.

To punctuate that history, Glencore has just hired Tony Hayward, the BP CEO who presided over the Gulf Oil Spill, as its new environment and safety expert.

Glencore now has its sights set on northern Minnesota.

Sulfide Mining, a History of Polluted Water

Sulfide mining, the process used to extract the non-iron metals from the ore, has polluted Minnesota’s waterways and caused other environmental damage. No matter how much mine executives try to spin the idea that new mining technologies’ can limit sulfide’s environmental impact, how they’ve learned their lessons, or how they will restore the site to its natural state, history shows sulfide leaves a lasting negative legacy

Polymet/Glencore is most likely to drag out in court any efforts by the state or federal government to make them stop polluting the surrounding lakes, rivers and streams. When the mine is no longer profitable, it will be abandoned, leaving the state and Minnesota taxpayers with the impossible task of cleaning up the mess. And make no mistake, the mess will be massive and toxic. Sulfide pollution will have run off in both directions polluting the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness to the north and Lake Superior to the south and east.

Polymet and Glencore are saying if they’re required to put up a bond or get adequate insurance to cover the real cost of cleanup or restoration costs, it’s a deal breaker. They can’t afford it. If a huge multinational mining company can’t afford to clean up its mess, how will Minnesota taxpayers be able to afford it when they leave?

Human Rights Abuses

European NGOs have target Glencore's human rights and pollution violations for further investigation. Glencore’s worker exploitations and anti-environmental actions in Colombia earned it The Public Eye Award, given out during the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos.

This “counterpoint to the annual [economic] meeting” aims to show the corporate world that social and environmental misdeeds have consequences, according to Public Eye’s website. “Glencore has no scruples when it comes to mining raw materials,” the organization said when giving out the award in 2008.

Swiss NGO, Bread for All, reports that Glencore’s mining operation at Katanga in Congo often has no safety measures. Most notably, miners aren't protected from uranium radiation and often crawl into hand-excavated cavities which frequently cave in following days of rain.

Also in Congo, Bread for All reports Glencore uses intermediaries to buy minerals from so-called "artisanal mines" which employ about 30,000 children who are particularly valuable to the operation because their smaller sizes allow them to crawl into the smallest of crevices to extract minerals.

Legacy of Massive Environmental Contamination

The second chapter of Glencore's story is its abysmal environmental record. Glencore’s environmental practices have been described to be “In the dark ages” when compared with its rivals.

Glencore's subsidiary, Mopani Copper Mines (MCM) in Zambia has ignored environmental regulations and routinely has sulfur dioxide emissions over seventy times the legal limit.

Glencore’s history of environmental contamination has global investors wary.

Connecting the Dots

It’s tough to see how Mining Minnesota Executive Director Frank Ongarro is lauding Glencore’s investment in PolyMet as a "positive thing" and heaping praise on its ever increasing share ownership.

A simple Google search shows Glencore has the size and business practices to make enormous sums of money, but few of these online sources -- other than Glencore’s own website -- say anything positive about how the company amasses its wealth.

According to PolyMet Executive Vice President Brad Moore, Glencore is simply a minor player, a small investor, a bit part in the PolyMet story.

Let’s be clear though, Glencore has no track record of just throwing a few million into a project and then stepping back to let others run it. Glencore’s own website reveals that it eventually ends up owning over 75 percent of all of its initial mining investments, with only one exception, an aluminum plant in Russia.

In 2007, Glencore bought a 25 percent share of Nikanor, a mining company which was trying to revive mines next to the Katanga mines in Congo. The deal gave Glencore exclusive rights to all of Nikanor's output, similar to the deal it cut with PolyMet.

Fast forward six months, and Katanga merged with Nikanor, but was quickly running out of money. Desperate for cash, Katanga eventually gave sole control of its mine operations to Glencore. Katanga agreed to issue more than a billion new shares, giving Glencore a 74 percent stake. Glencore now runs Katanga.

It's worth noting that Polymet, a company venturing into new mining territory with little cash on hand, is partnering with a giant possessing "detailed knowledge of almost all the major mine development opportunities around the world," according to a Duluth tv news station quoting Polyment's CEO.  Given the Swiss mining giant's track record, it’s easy to see who could eventually own and control Polymet's Northern Minnesota mining opperation: Glencore.

Frank Moe is a Conservation Minnesota Voter Center Board Member.

Thanks for participating! Commenting on this conversation is now closed.


  • W. D. (Bill) Hamm says:

    September 13, 2011 at 8:56 am

    Ok Frank, where are these poluted waters in Minnesota from the sulfite mining that hasn’t yet happened. Then yuo go on to talk about court cases that have yet to be filed. How many more lies and how much more scare tactic inuendo can you scab together to make your point. Your glorified tourism industry has fed our northlanders very poorly producing mostly seasonal entry level low paying jobs rather than the living wage jobs we get from Mining. Your kind has cost us mort than 10,000 living wage forest jobs in the last 20 years alone. The great northland is our home not you city idiots private playground. You fools can’t even control urban sprawl in your own back yard but your going to do your best to stop any economic development you can that might take even a small potion of your playground away. You know we haven’t had a child labor issue here in northern Minnesota in my lifetime, you have to go to the agricultural fields of California for that, more scare tactis about BS that can’t happen here. You speak of horrible polution problems in countries with no effective polution control policies and then say the same thing will happen here where we do. It is good we don’t relly on your kinds research to make these decisions, we would all need Welfare, food stamps, and fuel assistance to get through the winter and wouldn’t that be great for the state budget.

  • TONY says:

    September 13, 2011 at 12:01 pm

    Sounds like Bill is one of those who will take a mine & it’s jobs & to hell with the environment. You want clean water, go to the store & buy bottled like they did in Hastings after they found their city wells were polluted from farm runoff. The last I looked, northern MN was still part of Minnesota & that gives all the people of Mn a say in preserving its clean water & woods. The state will probably approve the mine after the local politicians get their donations fom the mine owner, all we are saying is give our water the protections it needed & dont make us pay to clean up your mess. I have family in Lutsen & they spend a lot of time preserving the land & waters & yes creating jobs in a sustainable way. You can have both.

  • W. D. (Bill) Hamm says:

    September 13, 2011 at 1:17 pm

    If you can’t fight with facts you make personal attacks. What do farm run offs have to do with this mining proposal that has yet to produce any polution. Your side has not proven any valid reason yet to turn down this permitting. If you are telling us that the Minnesota PCA stacked with your enviro/wacho’s isn’t going to protect us than take your battle to them. As for Northern Minnesota politicians taking bribes to get this project done, put your money where your mouth is and prove it liar. Some of these folks are my friends.

  • TONY says:

    September 13, 2011 at 4:43 pm

    You & I know this mine will go thru. All I am saying is make the company(that has a terrible reputation) to pay for any pollution they may cause. Why make you & I pay for it. As far as the MPCA helping, ask the city fathers in Lutsen who couldnt get any help with their clean water issues or the Dakota county officials who fought for 4 years to get the MPCA to stop a wastewater plant that was dumping raw sewage into a stream. I never said “bribe”, I said campaign contribution. How do you think Lutsen resort got a law that allows it to drain the Poplar River dry, I have friends in the legislature too. The biggest reason your losing logging jobs is automation, my family got a 100 acres logged up there by 2 guys and their fancy logging machines. I will guarantee that when this mine pollutes & history shows that it will, you will be writing letters asking us city folks to clean up your water.

  • cama says:

    September 14, 2011 at 1:33 am

    I live in northern Minnesota and there is no question that our waters must come first. Whatever harms them cannot be allowed. They are our greatest and most valuable resource. To recognize that fact is being pro-water. Sulfide mining will damage our waters, as it has everywhere it has been done. As for Minnesota, while proposed PolyMet is labeled the first “sulfide mine,” taconite mines operating in the sulfide bearing Duluth Complex have polluted northern Minnesota’s waters for decades - most noticeably the Dunka Mine that is still leaching after closure. The Peter Mitchell mine also has contamination issues for which it was recently fined. Whether they are unable to be cleaned up because the industry can’t or won’t is one question. The more important question is why anyone who cares about our waters would allow sulfide mining to come here when the mining industry does not clean up existing contamination. And contamination is not limited to the Duluth Complex. MinnTac, located on the central Mesabi Range, has a tailings pond so polluted no one knows what to do with it - whatever choice they make will end up impacting some of our premier waterways. Proposed sulfide mining in the Duluth Complex – and the toxicity of the resulting 99% waste - will be overwhelmingly catastrophic to our waters. It will kill jobs connected to the recreation and hospitality industries, lower home values, decrease sustainable tax revenue, and exacerbate current health issues. We must look to a future where we base our economy on jobs that support our waters, not undermine them. Pun intended.

  • W. D. (Bill) Hamm says:

    September 14, 2011 at 8:29 am

    While I have heard about asbestose related fibers, Sulfite leaching from Minnesota mines and taconite tailing is a new one. There is the old Steel plant in Duluth but that has different issues Cama. As for your minimum wage jobs in houspitality and tourism, we will take the year around mining jobs any day with their sustainable wages. We up here are getting damn tired of you city idiots deciding how we should live. As for your idea of what is wrong with logging Tony, get a clue. I hold a degree in forestry and worked in it during the undermining of our forest industry nation wide by the likes of you. I heard the garbage about the big bad companies like Boise Cascade while whatching your kind drive every small mom and pop logging operation out of buisness across this country with lies like the “Spotted Owl”.

  • tony says:

    September 14, 2011 at 11:52 am

    So Bill, I see Cama showed your lack of knowledge about mines, turn off the Fox channel & read about mining & you will see why the young people with their up to date degrees are concerned about these new mines. As far as logging, me & my brother work constantly with foresters from the various county, city & state agencies & they love fixing the problems caused by old foresters & their out-dated policies. Two things, #1 go see a current logging operation & you will see automation everywhere which means fewer employees & as far as the spotted owl, those policies from the 90’s were put in place to cover 26 threatened & endangered species in the northwest. Also logging is down cuz nobody is building homes right now, there is no market. When my brother tried to sell his poplar, he had no takers cuz there was no market for it. Meanwhile I am going back to work re-building rivers & streams in SE MN, have a nice day.

  • cama says:

    September 14, 2011 at 5:36 pm

    Respectfully Bill, I think you missed my comment that I lived in northern Minnesota. Many of my friends would be surprised that their resorts and businesses would be considered minimum wage jobs.

  • W. D. (Bill) Hamm says:

    September 15, 2011 at 5:24 am

    Unbelievable Cama, over 90% of tourism JOBS are low wage and many seasonal yet you are trying to use resort owners (A tiny fraction of the work force) as the standard bearer here. You are right they are the only ones making any real money in tourism. As for FOX news fool I get only free TV, like PBS. You still have not shown me any info on sufite leaching relating to taconite. Tony, your knowledge of the logging industry is clearly outlined by your arrogant insults and clear missunderstanding of how our products were priced out of the market by fools like you. Issues like the obnoxious “Logger Certification” that our European neighbors forced on us while continuing to support selling us Russian and indoneasian wood from uncertified harvest operations. Russian Pine still comes into eastern europe where it is sawed into final products and ends up in Home Depot here. Pine forests here, planted for our future income, that need thinning are set aside here as scientific and natural areas to choke themselves to death. Forest sevice forestry personel doing one step thinnings rather than several timely thinnings of pine plantations because of the regulatory costs. Your ignorance astounds me.