Jennifer challenges my “agnosticism” on Copper Nickle mining

From: “Zenith City Weekly”
To: “Harrywelty”
Sent: Friday July 27 2018 7:44:41PM
Subject: Response to #4 Copper-nickel mining (with two follow-up questions)

Thank you for your detailed responses to my first set of questions, Harry. I really enjoyed reading your replies! I also enjoyed reading your responses to KBJR.

I’m writing this time to take issue (well…to sort of take issue…) with your response to KBJR’s question #4 about copper-nickel mining. While I respect your skepticism of both sides—and there is certainly bad information perpetuated by both sides—I contend that (no offense) it would be supremely irresponsible to vote for any candidate who remains “agnostic” about this subject.

You’re right; there is technology available to mitigate the most dangerous pollutant, which is sulfate, not sulfite. Sulfite (SO2) is a harmless food additive. Sulfate (SO4) is created when sulfur is exposed to oxygen. When sulfate combines with carbon and bacteria in the water, it makes inorganic mercury bioavailable. The bioavailable form is called methylmercury, and it causes neurological problems and intellectual impairment. It also never really goes away. A young girl who consumes it will still have it in her system when she grows up and has a baby. And it crosses the placenta, which is why we already have 1:10 babies born with dangerously high mercury in their blood.

And that’s just from taconite mining and wastewater treatment. Mining such low-grade ore, as for copper in the Duluth Complex, releases exponentially more sulfate, due to more waste rock. But you’re right, we can mitigate it. Technology is not the problem; money is the problem. Money and time.

There are four basic mitigation technologies:

1) Constructed wetlands covered with large mats of reeds and grasses. Contaminated water is added, and as the mats decay, it initiates methylation. The mats must be indefinitely replaced and disposed of as hazardous waste. Cliffs Erie tried to set these things up and then walked away from them, and that’s how they got fined $60,000. This method has all kinds of potential, but it requires constant babysitting.

2) A chemical is added to contaminated water that causes the sulfate to drop out of the solution and renders it harmless. Depending on the chemical used, the sulfate could be turned into Epsom salts and resold for a profit. However, this process must be maintained indefinitely.

3) Electricity is introduced into the contaminated water and, because sulfate has a negative electrical charge, it gathers up all the sulfate for disposal. This must be monitored and maintained indefinitely. Also, all that electricity is expensive.

4) The contaminated water is run through a polymer membrane, which is the least effective of the four, but it, too, must be maintained indefinitely. PolyMet is proposing a combination of #3 and #4 (i.e., reverse osmosis), which is pretty much the best mitigation strategy that currently exists.

But breaking up low-grade ore is like marrying it: You’re committed forever. Precipitation and groundwater will continue to perpetually pour sulfates into the Partridge and Embarrass Rivers and down the watershed. There’s no putting sulfates back into the ground—you broke it; you buy it. The only option at that point is to continuously capture and treat the contaminated runoff.

So, here’s my first follow-up question: Who’s going to pay for that? Who’s writing the blank check for indefinite water treatment? The technology is there, but where’s the money??

I suppose we could pray real hard to find “passive, long-term mitigation.” That’s what the mining industry and the U of M are doing. Right now, they’re claiming to have bioreactors that they can just stick into the mining pits and virtually walk away. The bioreactors use iron to create iron sulfide and elemental sulfur, which are both harmless. And the bioreactors do reduce the amount of sulfate—-by creating methylmercury. They’re methylation machines.

It’s really quite cynical. Because we have a sulfate standard in state law, but no methylmercury standard. So they’re just trying to crank down the levels of sulfate, even if what comes out the other end is, according to NRRI’s own data, 95% poison. They keep trying to hand-wave that away with water flow rates and mercury pit concentrations. But just ask Rolf Weberg: How much methylmercury is coming out the other end of that thing? How much is coming out in a laboratory setting? How much is coming out when you account for the additional iron in the experimental pit (which is an old taconite pit)?

There is one sense in which PolyMet is being singled out or excessively focused on. Wastewater treatment is already a huge source of sulfate/methylmercury. Natural sulfate levels are about four milligrams per liter. Back in 2009, the US Geological Survey sampled water in the estuary. Sulfate levels were at 288 m/L in the bay water where WLSSD discharges. And I’m not dissing WLSSD. They’re not subject to the 10 m/L standard because that only applies to “wild rice waters.” Plus, findings were even worse in other parts of the state. Marshall’s wastewater treatment spits out 1,050 m/L.

However, the discharge from WLSSD does travel up the St. Louis River about 20 kilometers, due to the rocking motion of the water in Lake Superior. (Gary Glass, BTW, was one of the scientists who discovered this back in 1990. They tracked a pile of mercury from WLSSD all the way up to Boy Scout Landing.)

So, my second follow-up question: PolyMet aside, what would you do as a congressman to address the existing sulfate problem created by wastewater treatment?

Looking forward to your answers—I hope you’ll indulge me again!




You have done a remarkable job describing the complicated question of the threat of Sulfates (not my sulfites) and the issue of their as yet indefinite containment through current mitigation efforts in a very economical summary. You have been paying attention to this and I haven’t. If you are correct, and I think you do your research, and if hell freezes over and I find myself in Congress I will almost certainly do my best to put sand in the gears of the copper nickle mining.

I have said that the economic value of 300 miners in the copper/nickle mines for twenty years is likely to be a small fraction of the tourism value of the pristine lands surrounding the mining area not even considering the watershed. I have also expressed dismay at our current national environmental leadership which saw Scott Pruit step down from the EPA. I don’t trust the Trump administration.

Having said all this I will still stick to my agnosticism. If the voters want someone who has all the answers already they have other options than me.