ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton has planned trips to mines in South Dakota and Michigan as his administration prepares for a major decision on whether to advance copper and nickel mining on the Iron Range.
Dayton spokesman Matt Swenson told The Associated Press on Wednesday that the governor will tour the Gilt Edge mine in western South Dakota on Oct. 27 and Eagle Mine in northern Michigan on Oct. 30. Dayton's administration is evaluating environmental issues surrounding the proposed PolyMet mine in northeastern Minnesota.
The PolyMet project has already caused divisions in Dayton's Democratic Party between those who see its job potential and those who worry about environmental damage.
Swenson says Dayton wants to assess the community impact of the mines. The tours will be private.
"Both visits are part of the Governor's due diligence to see first-hand the operations and impacts of mine sites similar to the PolyMet project proposal," Swenson said.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources plans to issue the final environmental impact statement on PolyMet next month. The DNR plans to rule on the adequacy of the massive document in February. If it gets the green light, PolyMet could then start applying for the necessary permits.
Mineral mining is ingrained in Minnesota's history, but the extraction proposed by PolyMet would be unique. Dayton has called the permitting decision the "most difficult and consequential decision I'll make as governor."
Paul Dancic, executive director of the conservation group Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, applauded the governor's plans.
"The enormous risk that PolyMet poses to the St. Louis River, Lake Superior and the Boundary Waters justifies the time and effort" of the tours, Dancic said in a statement.
The Eagle Mine is about 40 miles west of Marquette on Michigan's Upper Peninsula. It went into production in September 2014 after a 12-year legal and political battle with parallels to the struggle over PolyMet.
Environmental groups and the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community fought to prevent the underground mine from being built, saying it poses a serious risk to groundwater and a nearby river. Similar to PolyMet's ore deposit, the Eagle Mine's nickel and copper are bound up in sulfide minerals that can leach sulfuric acid when exposed to air and water. Mining opponents also worry about ongoing prospecting that could lead to more mines in the area.
Though the UP historically was a major copper producing area, nickel is the biggest resource at the Eagle Mine. Its owner is Lundin Mining Corp. of Toronto. Lundin has projected that it will extract 360 million pounds of nickel and 295 pounds of copper during the mine's projected eight-year life. The company says the mine was designed to meet or exceed all state requirements for non-ferrous metallic minerals mining.
Another similarity with PolyMet is that the Eagle Mine converted a former iron ore processing plant, the Humboldt Mill, which formerly belonged to Cleveland Cliffs Iron Company (now Cliffs Natural Resources Inc.). PolyMet will reuse a former LTV Steel Mining Company processing plant in Hoyt Lakes that it bought from Cleveland Cliffs.
No major environmental problems have been reported at the Eagle Mine so far. In contrast, the Gilt Edge Mine near Lead in the Black Hills of South Dakota is a federal Superfund cleanup site that has already cost taxpayers over $100 million.
The former gold and silver mine was abandoned in 1999. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the most recent mine operator, Brohm Mining Company, left behind about 150 million gallons of acidic, heavy-metal-laden water in three open pits and millions of cubic yards of acid-generating, sulfide-bearing waste rock. Some interim remedies are in place at the site, about 6.5 miles east of Lead, but the cleanup is still years away from completion.
Dancic called the Gilt Edge mine a lesson for Minnesota, saying the state "can't afford a disaster like that."
One of the issues with PolyMet is whether the company can provide sufficient financial assurances for a proper cleanup when it eventually closes. Brohm forfeited a $6.4 million mining bond, which wasn't nearly enough to cover the costs. Four mining companies that operated the site previously agreed to contribute $30 million to the cleanup.
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