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Copper-Nickel Mining: Alternatives for a Polarizing Debate

April 29, 2013 By Marcy Nadel, Macalester College

It's time again for Minnesota 2020's series of environmental policy op-eds from Macalester College students. We're featuring articles that explore issues from food labeling to northern Minnesota mining. We hope you enjoy this collaboration with Macalester College's Environmental Studies Department and its students.

If you are reading this article on your computer, then you are directly using between 25 and 60 different minerals, ranging from well-known elements such as copper and gold to lesser-known compounds like titanium dioxide. Copper and nickel are particularly fundamental to modern living, with uses as diverse as power lines, stainless steel silverware, and rechargeable batteries. Yet few of us pause to consider the environmental impacts of extracting these minerals – despite the fact we use them every day and continue to purchase new products.

Almost half of toxins tracked in the EPA's Toxic Release Inventory in 2011, the latest year on record, came from the metals mining sector. Copper-nickel mining is one of the more environmentally damaging forms of hard rock mining, owing to the fact copper, nickel, gold, uranium, cobalt, titanium, platinum, palladium, and other metals are bound up in sulfide minerals. These associated commodities represent a fraction of one percent of the rock that is mined, generating incredible amounts of waste. Known as mine tailings, the waste reacts when exposed to air and water to produce sulfuric acid. Acid mine drainage often leaks into local waterways, and is detrimental to aquatic ecosystems if not properly controlled.



One of the largest undeveloped sulfide deposits on earth is located in the Mesabi Iron Range of Minnesota and the greater Lake Superior Basin. Approximately a dozen companies are currently working on various stages of exploration and development in our state, two of which (PolyMet and Twin Metals) are well into the stages of project planning and permitting.

The future of copper-nickel mining in northern Minnesota has become a bitter and polarizing debate. Proponents argue that mining will bring jobs and long-term economic development, while environmental organizations warn that corporations will poison our waters, leaving taxpayers to foot the bill. Given the proximity of copper-nickel deposits to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and to Lake Superior, these concerns cannot be taken lightly. But no one seems to be discussing an environmental safety middle ground.

Mining is not going away, and in fact demand for copper, nickel, and other sulfide minerals are growing. Large quantities of these minerals are necessary for green technologies such as hybrid cars, catalytic converters (which filter vehicle exhaust), and wind turbines – a growing demand that cannot be met purely through mineral recycling. Last year was the third year in a row with a global production deficit for copper, the most abundant of the minerals whose mining is proposed in northern Minnesota.

Other major copper producers include Chile, Peru, and China, countries whose environmental regulation lags far behind our own. For example, Chile’s state owned mining company (currently the largest copper producer in the world) dumped acid drainage directly onto the beaches near the Bay of Chañaral until the late 1980s. Over 300 million tons of toxic wastes were spilled and nearby communities experience elevated rates of cancer and skin disease, but what is most concerning is that the government continues to deny the severity of contamination. Decades later, the site has still not been cleaned up.

The growing worldwide copper deficit must be met, if not from domestic sources then from international ones. The Unites States is the world’s second largest copper consumer, and in 2012 we imported one third of our copper from other countries. We do not produce any nickel domestically. Moving forward, we must ask ourselves if it is responsible to increasingly rely on developing countries for our copper, nickel, and other mineral needs.

The first-time development of copper-nickel resources in Minnesota, a state with stringent water quality standards, represents a wonderful opportunity for environmentally conscious mining. Among alternatives to conventional mining, acid mine drainage can be mitigated by careful site planning with respect to streams and groundwater and by confining mineral leaching. Visual and noise pollution can be avoided at some locations through the development of underground mines instead of open pit ones, a shift which also greatly reduces the threat of acid production after these mines have been closed. Finally, new technologies can replace the sulfur-dioxide-emitting smelting process with much cleaner water-based systems.

PolyMet and Twin Metals have already included some of these improvements in their mining plans, and existing environmental regulations should be strengthened to require more. Responsible mining would also bring tangible benefits to northern Minnesota, including better roads, high-quality job creation, and tens of millions of dollars in tax revenue from mining companies. According to officials in St. Louis County, copper-nickel mining in the region has the potential to generate more than 7,000 new jobs over the next two decades and grow Minnesota’s economy by $2.7 billion.

We cannot continue to pigeonhole the mining debate into a simplistic environmentalists-versus-multinationals framework. Looking at the entire picture, copper-nickel mining in northern Minnesota is a much more complex issue than most stakeholders make it out to be, and we need to be having informed conversations.

With careful collective action and rigorous oversight it could be possible for Minnesota to set a much-needed example to the world of a new generation of environmentally responsible mining. Take it upon yourself to learn more about the broader effects of mining, and next time you boot up your computer or pull out your cell phone take a moment consider how you would like the minerals in your devices be mined.

For more information on the issue, please visit the following sites:

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  • Bud Herring says:

    April 29, 2013 at 4:55 pm

    Excellent video by the University Of Minnesota-Duluth to watch on the topic of copper-nickel mining. Very informational.

  • david nass says:

    April 30, 2013 at 1:09 pm

    one of more thoughtful essays on the topic I’ve read.

  • Craig Stellmacher says:

    April 30, 2013 at 6:47 pm

    Our problem is this, explained to me by FEMA Hydrologist Jeff Dickson:

    “It’s very hard to model chaos”.

    Dickson, cleaned up the air force radar superfund site, less than 50 miles away in the same kind of “gabro rock”.

    He explained it to me like this:

    “We modeled the hydrology of the area, and predicted how fast water would flow and spread horizontally. When we released dye into test wells though, it moved much faster than the model. It’s like trying to drive across the Twin Cities Craig using only alleys. You’d take days, meet dead ends, would have to double back, but occasionally you’d find yourself on an entry ramp onto highway 94.”

    “I have such an alley onto 94 in my neighborhood,” I replied. (I lived at the time in Stevens Square, there’s an entrance like this just east of Franklin and 35W onto 94.)

    It’s hard to model fractals and chaotic things.

    Once you drive GIANT mining trucks over the granite, and use explosives, it is riddled with cracks. Modeling the hydrology and horizontal spread of contaminants may prove inaccurate in practice.

    Jeff Dickson was given less than 5 minutes to explain this to a Minnesota Senate Committee hearing.

    I attended 3 Senate Hearings, and 1 House hearing on Sulfide Mining, attended the unveiling of the DEIS, and more…

    During the hearings, constant reference was given to a 28 page letter from the EPA giving the DEIS a scathing “no go” review.

    It wasn’t really explained, so I called its author Ken Westlake at the Chicago office, and talked to its author for 40 minutes here:

    This draft report cost millions, but it also had a list of problems the EPA could not ignore.


    4:15 Q : I”ve heard [EU-3] is a rare negative rating?

    A: ”It is. Certainly the first time a Region 5 Project has received this rating in my 9 plus years in my current position.”

    4:30 ”And I think we’ve only done 7 adverse ratings in Region 5 total, since our national data base was created in 1987.”


    It will be hard to stop this train though, there are billions of dollars behind it.