Why a mining accident in British Columbia matters to Minnesota

Categories: Environment

Screenshot of Mount Polley Mine accident from YouTube

The Mount Polley copper and gold mine lies at the head of the Fraser River in Cariboo, British Columbia, a mammoth site of pits, vehicles, and steel infrastructure designed to extract precious metals from the rocks below.

The project is nearly 2,000 miles and two time zones away from Minnesota. But after a major disaster earlier this month, and with the mine's similarities to proposed projects in Minnesota, it could wind up having an impact on the future of mining in the state.

See also:
Buried Treasure: On the Iron Range, the surging commodities market may bring prosperity. But it might also threaten one of the state's greatest natural resource

The accident at Mount Polley occurred in its tailings pond, a large pool holding the non-valuable rocks left behind after they've been mined. The dam containing the pond breached, sending 1.3 billion gallons of pollutants into the nearby ponds, lakes, and rivers.

It left hundreds without drinkable water. While the damage to wildlife is now being seen as far less than what was originally estimated, the total cost could wind up at $200 million.

For Minnesota, this matters for two reasons. First, as the environmental group Mining Truth pointed out, the environmental consulting group Knight Piesold, which performed the initial engineering on the pond that breached, was hired by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to assess the impact of a proposed Minnesota precious metal mine from PolyMet Mining Corp.

The thinking was that if the company couldn't keep the Mount Polley mine safe, how would it be able to ensure Minnesota's was safe, too?

As it stands now, PolyMet is still planning to begin construction on the mine next year, but a whole lot stands in its way, from a final state environmental review to the actual permitting process. Environmental groups are still up in arms over the project, though, as sulfide mining has a far greater risk of water pollution than other mines (like the taconite mines on the Iron Range). Seeing the connections between PolyMet and an accident only raises more questions for them.

"Minnesotans are being asked to put a lot of faith in these companies that their projects won't endanger the mine's workers or the surrounding environment," said Paul Danicic, executive director of the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness.

As it turns out, that worry may have been a bit overblown. Knight Piesold said last week that while it did work on the initial designs of the Mount Polley mine, everything has changed so much since then that the company can't be blamed. In fact, the company said that it was asking the government all the way back in 2010 to keep a close eye on the project to make sure it was safe.

That brings up the second, arguably more important point. While Minnesota's mine obviously isn't the same as the one in British Columbia, the breach highlights the inherent danger in this type of precious metal mining. When you mine for these kinds of minerals, you're inherently uncovering pollutants that can harm water and wildlife. There are ways to limit the damage, like through the water treatment plants that PolyMet has proposed, but you can never fully guarantee that things won't go wrong.

And things have gone wrong before. The British Columbia spill is the worst-case scenario for these types of precious metal mines, but it's not even close to the only project that's had problems. As just one example, Nevada's Leviathan Mine extracted metals through the 1950s, but once the mine was abandoned, it left behind dangerous minerals that, when mixed with rain or snow, turned into sulfuric acid that polluted nearby waters. The problem has since mostly been treated, but it's still costing money to this day.

For Minnesota, the question is whether there's enough oversight and regulation to ensure the same thing won't happen here.

You can see video of the Mount Polley breach here:

Send your story tips to the author, Robbie Feinberg. Follow him on Twitter @robbiefeinberg.

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Chris L Nerlien
Chris L Nerlien

Um ya.....nature first recognize international borders and boundaries.

Mike Boe
Mike Boe

wow....was this a letter to the editor? I get that City Pages website is basically a bunch of poorly researched blogs and doesn't really count as journalism but man.....clearly the author wanted us to know how he (or she?) felt on this topic.

Shayne O'Neil
Shayne O'Neil

Wasn't aware Mn was still in the mining business.


I can't imagine what that insurance policy would cost. By Polymet's own estimation, the water treatment of this mine will need to continue for 500 years! Show me a 500 year old company! Who's going to pay for this clean-up? Us. All for a little over 300 jobs, I just don't see the upside to this.

henk.tobias0 topcommenter

Mines come and go, the ore runs out and they move on. You see it all over the Iron Range, From Crosby/Ironton to Two Harbors, piles of tailings, open pits (most filled with water), abandon towns and rusting equipment. While the pits and the tailing piles may be unsightly they are relatively benign. In fact some of those pits have made excellent recreation areas, some with crystal clear water have made trout stocking possible and SCUBA diving exciting. Most recently we've seen tailings piles near Crosby turn into world class mountain bike trails. But what's being proposed by Polymet is different. There will be no swimming in their ponds when the ore runs out, there will be no Mountain bike trails on the toxic tailings piles left behind. In fact NOTHING will be touching this stuff for at least 500 years after the mine closes. 500 years! That's by the mine's own admission. This is something entirely new, there will be toxic ponds that will need to be maintained, monitored and guarded for a period of time that we have no point of reference for, we can't imagine it because its never been done. Forget what you see on the iron range now, this is a whole new ball game.

MicheleBachmann topcommenter

Minnesota's water and natural beauty is too valuable to risk to corporate greed.  If there is mining in Minnesota that means we need strict regulations.  I'd say the most important thing would be proper insurance coverage to pay for disaster cleanup.  

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