Northeastern Minnesota politicians are demonstrating their indifference (or ignorance?) when they dismiss out of hand the legitimate concerns raised by geologists and others over the presence of high levels of sulfide-containing pyrite in the rock they want blasted to make way for a rerouting of a five-mile section of Hwy. 169 between Tower and Ely.
While pandering is second nature to many elected officials, the mad rush to endorse the so-called “southerly reroute” over less-costly improvements is almost embarrassing. That’s particularly true when the politicians don’t make the effort to fully understand the issues, as we saw in Rep. Rick Nolan’s letter attacking the Environmental Protection Agency, which was one of several agencies that had raised concerns about the high concentration of pyrite along the proposed south route.
Environmentalists and EPA bureaucrats didn’t create the issue, as Nolan tried to suggest. Ancient geologic forces did.
Pyrite (FeS2), which is a common mineral in our area, is more than half sulfur by weight. Scratch a piece of it and you can actually smell the sulfur. When combined within rock, sulfur usually exists in a chemically reduced form, known as sulfide.
The presence of significant quantities of pyrite in our area is one reason this region is more susceptible to processes like mercury contamination and the effects of acid rain. When pyrite is exposed to the elements, either naturally or through human activities, it combines with air and water and creates sulfuric acid (H2SO4), which leaches heavy metals from the soil and underlying rock. In many parts of the world, the underlying geology helps to buffer these processes by locking up metals in the soil. In our area, it’s just the opposite, which is why many area lakes naturally have higher than normal levels of heavy metals, like arsenic and mercury.
While some in our region’s political establishment are happy to discount basic science as the mumbo jumbo of eggheads and EPA bureaucrats, scientific facts do tend to be stubborn things. The Dunka pit is one of those stubborn scientific realities. A few decades ago, LTV dug up a lobe of sulfide-bearing ore to get access to the iron ore located underneath. That pile of sulfur-laced ore now leaches sulfuric acid and a variety of toxic metals, (in a process known as acid rock drainage) and will continue to do so for generations, requiring ongoing treatment. Not even Tom Rukavina can pretend otherwise.
But that doesn’t mean the region’s politicians are willing to learn from past mistakes. In the Hwy. 169 project, they’re gung ho to create their own mini-Dunka.
According to MnDOT, construction of a southerly realignment would entail blasting an estimated 250,000 cubic yards of rock, much of it potentially laced with pyrite, according to geologists who have examined the area for MnDOT. That’s a pile of material twenty feet high, covering almost eight acres. MnDOT is still trying to determine how it might mitigate the effects of exposing all that sulfur-bearing ore— and how much that mitigation might cost.
The EPA suggested that MnDOT might want to explore alternative routes. The federal agency, quite sensibly, has a policy of avoiding environmental messes when viable alternatives exist.
Unfortunately, our region’s politicians have a policy of ignoring environmental concerns, and of sticking their noses where they don’t belong. Their recent passage of legislation requiring that MnDOT pursue the southerly realignment— despite its high cost and potential environmental downsides— is a classic example. Yes, let’s spend millions of dollars we don’t have to, and create an ongoing pollution problem at the same time! That’s the kind of lose-lose that can warm the heart of any Iron Range politician.
Of course, arguing for the application of common sense, and a little fiscal restraint, practically puts one on the side of the terrorists, according to backers of the southerly realignment. If you don’t support their proposal, you don’t support a safer Hwy. 169.
“When are we going to start worrying about people rather than rocks!” exclaimed St. Louis County Commissioner Keith Nelson at a recent public meeting on the issue. As if anyone is arguing “Save the Rocks!” It was ridiculous, even for Nelson.
Never mind that whichever alternative MnDOT ultimately constructs will be engineered to identical safety standards, so an upgrade within the existing highway corridor should be as safe as any of the possible reroutes. And never mind that saving money, as much as $5 million, on this segment could free up funds to improve other, equally unsafe, portions of Hwy. 169—providing for an even safer corridor overall. Logic has now officially been tossed out the window in favor of demagoguery.
And it should concern more than just residents of our area. As the state considers whether to move forward with wholesale mining of sulfur-bearing ore for its copper, nickel, and other trace components, it’s hardly comforting that our region’s political leaders are willing to act so cavalierly about the very real issue of acid rock drainage. When politicians pass legislation superseding environmental review, or threaten legislation (as Nolan did recently) to emasculate regulatory agencies if they don’t kowtow to special interests, all Minnesotans have cause to worry.
The Hwy. 169 project is a case study in how our politicians handle this kind of environmental concern. So far, they’ve come up woefully short.