Profit vs. Water: Copper-Nickel Mining in Minnesota

A thousand people showed up at River Center in St. Paul for the Bureau of Land Management (7/18/17) hearing on copper-nickel mining in the water-rich area of northern Minnesota.

By Susu Jeffrey  Rise Up Times  July 23, 2017

Image result for sulfide mining minnesota

Photo: Minnesota Trout Unlimited

Most of the 60-some people who testified spoke of a personal relationship with the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW). Only those whose names were drawn could give verbal testimony during the allotted time. Several people mentioned the quality of quietness, of the freedom to drink clean lake water, of personal transformational experiences.

More than “please don’t wreck my vacation,” the BWCAW lies just above the great continental divide triad in northern Minnesota. This area is where the Mother Waters of the Mississippi, Hudson Bay and the Great Lakes-Laurentian system part to the south, north and east of Turtle Island/North America.

Acid mine drainage at 30-year-old mineral exploration site near the BWCAW

Acid mine drainage at 30-year-old mineral exploration site near the BWCAW. Photo: Friends of the BWCA

The profit ethic of industrial degradation of the environment with promises to fix the damage later has repeatedly proven to be untenable. The larger issue of permanent, unfixable poisoning of the waters, the source of all life, needs to be reckoned.

In Minnesota, sulfide hard-rock mining proposals and exploration activities to date are focused primarily on extracting copper, nickel, platinum, palladium and gold, which make up only a very small fraction of the ore. Sulfide mining has never been practiced in the state.

In sulfide mining, the vast majority of excavated rock is waste rock. When exposed to the surface, sulfide ores undergo a chemical reaction that can create long-lasting contamination to water and the plants and animals, including humans, dependent on that water.[i]

What Time is It?

In 1892 the U.S. Supreme Court found that Illinois could not just give away the shoreline along Lake Michigan to a private railroad company because the citizens needed that shoreline for fishing, navigation and commerce. That landmark case was called Illinois Central Railroad.

Among the inalienable rights I hold is the right to life. Water is life. Literally—there is no known life on earth without water. People are about 70 percent water, and the surface of the earth is about 70 percent water.

Listen to Sara Thomsen’s award-winning song Precious Water here.

And all water is connected. For example, the fallout from Fukushima washed up on the beaches of Oregon and California, in the rainwater in Vancouver British Columbia[ii] and in the fish eaten across America.

Rainwater moves across America in clouds. Rain drops form around suspended particles in the sky. Rain falls and runs down to the rivulet, brook, stream, creek, lake, river, ocean—or, infiltrates through the soil into the water table. It never just rains on one person.


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You can’t say water is just an environmental issue. Water is an issue of survival, of public welfare. Water is an issue of the public trust and government is the trustee of the public good—for the present and future generations. In other words, water is public, one of the basic Commons, along with air and earth.

Water cannot be fenced-in. Water obeys gravity. Any commercial statement about long-term containment of water is “magical thinking.” PolyMet proposes to contain the sulfide waste water in northern Minnesota for 500 years.

We citizens hold the Commons as constitutional rights; natural rights endowed to us and to future generations. This is the social contract between people and government. Without the public trust, government is useless—or worse, an enabler.

“The very agencies created to protect our environment have been hijacked by the polluting industries they were meant to regulate,” Bill Moyers says.

There is a framework for environmental law, it is called “public trust litigation.” What would it take to reverse an inevitable copper-nickel sulfide mining leak? Five hundred years? Twenty-five hundred years?  What time is it?

If government agencies don’t stop environmental crimes against the laws of nature, Moyers hopes maybe “the judicial system, our children and their children will save us from ourselves.”


[i] http://miningtruth.org/faq-sulfide-mining-minnesota-truth-report.pdf

[ii] From American Geophysical Union Water Resources Research Journal, first published: December 17, 2015, DOI: 10.1002/2015WR017325.

Susu Jeffrey is an environmental and climate change activist who focuses on water issues.


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The contents of Rise Up Times do not necessarily reflect the views of the editor.

One comment

  1. minnesota is the hotspot for the nickel and copper mining site plus it is not controlled by federal government so people are rushing to find out something precious out of river.

    Like

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