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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Ignoring sulfate pollution

Who really stands to benefit when our region’s water quality suffers?

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Writer and political activist Upton Sinclair famously wrote, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” And the truth of that statement is evident in the continuing failure of the Iron Range’s political establishment to address the issue of sulfate pollution from the region’s taconite mines.
We recognize that plenty of good salaries depend on the continuation of taconite mining, which is undoubtedly why so many in our region appear so willing to simply pretend that the pollution that emanates from facilities like the Minntac tailings basin doesn’t exist, or that its impacts are minor.
While the current focus on sulfate pollution centers on its impact on wild rice, sulfate is also linked to the conversion of elemental mercury to methyl mercury in our area lakes. Methyl mercury is a particularly toxic form of mercury that bioaccumulates in fish. Under natural conditions, sulfate levels in northeastern Minnesota waters are very low, which limits the creation of methyl mercury. But when elevated, even a little, from sulfate discharges, the production of methyl mercury can jump sharply, leading to more mercury in the fish we eat. That’s another inconvenient fact that we choose to pretend doesn’t have a connection to the way in which many folks in our region earn a living.
Lest there be any misunderstanding, we believe that we can have taconite mining and clean water, but achieving that will take political courage from those who have chosen for years to bury their heads in the sand. As we reported earlier this year, an analysis by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency found that the taconite industry has the financial resources to clean up its pollution. But as long as mining companies know that the politicians, local unions, and the rest of the political establishment in our region are willing to carry their sulfate-tainted water on this issue, they have little need to fear enforcement of the state’s water quality standards.
The connection between the Minntac tailings basin and sulfate discharges is indisputable. As the data released this past week by the Environmental Protection Agency shows, the closer a downstream water body is to the basin, the higher the concentration of sulfate. While the concentrations are lower by the time the water reaches Lake Vermilion, the EPA still includes Vermilion on the list of 30 water bodies in the state impaired by sulfate pollution. The levels now reported in Lake Vermilion are high enough to impact wild rice as well as jump start the conversion of elemental mercury to methyl mercury. That should be a concern to everyone who consumes fish from the lake.
The state’s historic failure to clean up pollution from taconite mines strongly suggests the state’s regulators can’t be trusted to keep a check on pollution from proposed copper-nickel mines, which involves sulfide ore, a far more environmentally hazardous type of rock than is the case with taconite. Actions matter more than words. Our region’s political class may say that sulfide-based mining can be done safely, but if it isn’t (as is likely), the evidence suggests they’ll do nothing to fix it. As long as salaries depend on continuing to ignore the problem, the problem is likely to continue to be ignored, or even defended with the usual spin about how our region’s water is cleaner than the rest of the state.
The truth is that the impacts of mining pollution are only felt in downstream waters. The lakes and rivers in the region that don’t receive pollution discharge are, in fact, notably clean, mostly because their watersheds remain relatively undeveloped compared to other parts of the state. Yet, citing the water quality of lakes that aren’t affected by mining discharge to defend the pollution of lakes that are, is the kind of logical fallacy we suspect Upton Sinclair had in mind when he penned his famous quote on the occasional failings of human nature.
Perhaps it’s best in this case to consider whose salaries are really at risk. As the MPCA has already concluded, the mining companies have sufficient resources to clean up their act. In other words, they can reduce their discharges and still maintain the salaries that sustain many Iron Range families. It is corporate profits— i.e. the size of the salaries of the boys in the Pittsburgh suites— that are potentially diminished if funds are diverted to clean up water here in northeastern Minnesota. So, when we hear our politicians talking about mining pollution clean-up as a threat to someone’s way of life, at least we know who they’re really talking about. And it’s not the working folks here on the Range.

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