Elected officials in our region have been consistent in recent years about one aspect of the proposed Twin Metals copper-nickel mine near Ely. If the mine can’t be done safely and in a way that protects water quality in the Boundary Waters, they don’t want it either. We hear all the time that copper mining supporters want clean water, too.
Which is why the vitriol over a two-year study examining, among other things, whether a copper-nickel mine within the watershed of the wilderness could actually protect water quality, is so perplexing. More information almost invariably leads to better decision-making. In this case, the feds are footing the bill to gather the science that so many mine boosters say they want to see as well.
Twin Metals supporters could at least point to the study as an unnecessary delay, if that were true. But given the current status of the metals market and the lack of investment in new mineral development, the Twin Metals proposal isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
PolyMet, which has far stronger economics than Twin Metals, is likely to face considerable challenges obtaining the mere several hundred million dollars in financing it will take to get that mine project off the ground. Other new copper mines in the U.S., that already have permits in place, remain unable to generate the capital investment to begin operations. The proposed Pumpkin Hollow copper mine in Nevada has had permits in hand for more than two years, without attracting the estimated $328 million investment needed to open. The company that owns the project is now considering significantly downsizing their plans (and employment numbers) to try to find a scale more attractive to investors.
In such an environment, the prospect of Twin Metals obtaining the nearly three billion dollars it would take to open their proposed mine is effectively zero, and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.
Taking two years to examine more fully whether a sulfide-based mine can be built safely in a water-rich environment on the edge of the canoe country, and whether the economic and social costs of such a project outweigh the benefits, is exactly the kind of undertaking that sensible government leaders would endorse wholeheartedly.
Once the information is gathered, government officials, politicians, and the public, will have the opportunity to assess the findings, debate what it all means, and determine whether or not it makes sense to pursue such a project. If not, the land would be withdrawn from mineral leasing consideration for 20 years, perhaps giving the technology the chance to improve to a point where such a mine could be done safely.
Some have suggested that there’s no need for a scientific look at the proposal until an actual mine plan is filed and an environmental review of the project is underway. But by that stage the decision is essentially already made that a mine is a desirable development. The Environmental Impact Statement process on a mine plan does not weigh the appropriateness of a project. And every EIS completed on a mine indicates that the mine can operate safely, because that’s an inherent assumption in the EIS process. The fact that many such mines go on to pollute demonstrates the limitations of that process.
We recognize that whipping locals into a froth over federal regulations and environmentalists is almost irresistible to many of the region’s politicians. Even so, to suggest that a two-year study of the wisdom of a copper mine, that even under the most optimistic scenario wouldn’t open for at least a decade, is an existential threat to the entire iron mining industry of northeastern Minnesota is hyperbolic, even for leaders well-schooled in the art of exaggeration. Rather than breathlessly demanding an end to the study before it even begins, or getting Congress to short-circuit the process, copper mining supporters should work to ensure that their own concerns are part of a thorough examination of the issues. If they have valid arguments, let an examination of the issues bear that out. If not, better we learn before heading any further down a very divisive road.