Bad Neighbors: Who Are the Companies Seeking to Open Copper-Sulfide Mines in Minnesota?
PolyMet and Twin Metals, the two companies seeking to open copper-sulfide mines in Minnesota are shell companies controlled by larger corporations: Glencore and Antofagasta, respectively. Who are these corporate citizens who want to operate in the state? What is their history and how have they conducted business? A look into the recent history of these companies reveals a long pattern of abuse, pollution, corruption, and misuse of power.
GLENCORE: THE MONEY BEHIND POLYMET
On April 3, 2018, near the Antapaccay copper mine in the province of Espinar, Peru, private security forces along with state police armed in riot gear used batons to beat about a dozen indigenous women who were standing in protest. In this arid region, the women were desperately trying to keep the mining company, Glencore, from digging a canal that would reroute the small stream that supplied their villages with fresh water.
This was not the first, nor is it likely to be the last time that Glencore, the world’s largest commodities trading company, and local residents clashed over water rights. In the past decade, tensions in this area have erupted into protests that, in some cases, have resulted in beatings, mass detention, even death. The source of much of this unrest is water. Namely, how the copper mines now owned by Glencore have polluted and depleted the area’s fresh water supply.
Studies by the Peruvian government have shown the drinking water in the area affected by Glencore’s Antapaccay mine to be contaminated with high levels of mercury, aluminum, arsenic, iron, and other heavy metals that make it unfit for human consumption. Rivers surrounding the mine have shown high levels of iron and molybdenum, making them unfit for irrigation purposes. High levels of heavy metals, particularly lead and mercury, have been detected in resident’s urine samples. In many cases, the levels were high enough to put their lives in danger. The water quality in the area is so bad that the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights has called on the United Nations to investigate if Glencore for violating resident’s human right to water.
The women who were beaten for protesting last year in April may have been trespassing, they may have thrown stones, as Glencore maintains. In the long struggle for clean water in the region, residents have become desperate. Access to clean, fresh water is after all, a struggle for survival.
PolyMet, which has recently received the final permit it needs to begin mining and is moving closer to opening Minnesota’s first copper-sulfide mine, is a Canadian shell company whose primary investor is Glencore. Unlike this arid region of Peru, northeastern Minnesota has an abundance of fresh water, something that has become increasingly rare in the world. Despite this gift, proposed copper-sulfide mines threaten to contaminate the clean, fresh water with the same heavy metals and toxins found in Peru.
When you look at the Glencore’s record and how they have done business around the world, one wonders why we have been so eager to invite them into Minnesota.
GLENCORE, A CORRUPT ENTERPRISE FROM THE BEGINNING
Glencore’s story is something out of Hollywood thriller. The founder, Marc Rich, built Glencore through a series of illegal transactions that ultimately led to him earning a spot on the FBI’s list of 10 most wanted fugitives. In defiance of international laws, he traded with apartheid South Africa, violated sanctions against Iran under the Ayatollah, became cozy with a number of dictators and rouge states, and in the process, made billions. When he was indicted by the United States government on 65 counts, including racketeering, tax evasion and fraud, he fled to Switzerland. In a final twist to the story, Rich was ultimately pardoned in the last hours of Bill Clinton’s presidency, a move many considered the most controversial pardon since Nixon.
After Rich stepped down from the company’s helm, Glencore continued to amass more capital, power, and influence. In the process they earned a reputation for aggressive business practices peppered by numerous scandals. Google “Glencore” and you’ll quickly find stories about them hoarding aluminum supplies to drive up the value of the metals, secretive campaigns to undermine renewable energy and influence politicians, dumping raw acid into a community’s water supply, using child labor, tax evasion, bribery, and corruption.
In matters that hit closest to home to our own country, Glencore’s Chairman is Tony Hayward, was the CEO of British Petroleum during the Deep Water Horizon disaster, which spilled 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.
The danger of copper-sulfide mining, and why Friends has been fighting so hard to keep these mines out of our state, is that it is inherently polluting. The very nature of extracting copper, nickel, gold, or cobalt from sulfide ore produces sulfuric acid. Just as iron rusts, so does sulfide ores containing these metals produce acid when they come into contact with oxygen or water.
And yet, the mining companies promise these mines will bring hundreds of high-paying jobs while using the latest and the safest technology. They claim that environmentalist are playing chicken little, stirring up unwarranted fears.
On what basis can these companies, Glencore and Antofagasta, make such promises? What is their record? Why should we trust them with our clean water?
ANTOFAGASTA’S DISMAL RECORD IN ITS HOME COUNTRY OF CHILE
Copper is to Chile what oil is to Saudi Arabia. Chile produces more copper than any country in the world. Copper accounts for 60 percent of Chile’s exports. However, behind the immense wealth the industry generates, there are untold stories of the local farmers and residents who struggle to exist in the shadow of these industrial giants.
Like Glencore, the issue of clean water has been a flashpoint of controversy for Antofagasta, the Chilean mining-giant that owns Twin Metals, and is trying to open a copper-sulfide mine less than a mile from the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Anyone who believes we can trust Antofagasta to operate so close to this national treasure must consider Antofagasta’s Los Pelambres mine, and how residents of a small village, Caimanes, have had their water contaminated and stolen.
The struggle began in 2004, when Antofagasta announced plans to construct a new tailings dam that would hold 1.7 billion tons of waste rock, the largest in Latin America. This would allow Antofagasta to cheaply dispose of the immense amount of waste rock generated in the mining process, and allow the mine to operate for 28 more years. In this seismically active area, residents were understandably fearful of having a toxic slurry of sulfuric acid and pulverized rock hanging over their village. More immediately, this mine expansion threatened the water they needed to live.
As feared, the town’s water supplies quickly diminished. What water remained became tarnished. An independent investigation by a professor at the University of Chile showed the local water supply had most likely become contaminated from leaks in the tailings dam. Mercury levels in the local drinking water were 26 percent higher than permitted levels. Iron, manganese, nickel, and molybdenum were found in nearby rivers and in the soil. Overexposure to these heavy metals can result in dementia, cancer, memory loss, cardiovascular diseases and a host of other conditions.
A decade after the fight over the proposed dam erupted, the mine continued to be a focal point of controversy. The legal battles, the protests, the civic unrest took a toll on the community. The Guardian reports that issues around access to water, pollution, and economic inequality reached a breaking point in Caimanes when the town ran out of water. Though Antofagasta denies any fault, many blamed the mine, which diverted water from the river that supplied the town with fresh water. For a time, townspeople relied on trucks to haul in water, sometimes from as far as 30 miles away.
Those who most felt the burden and hardship of these conditions clashed with those who supported the mine. The social fabric began to tear. The rift went deeper than just neighbors fighting amongst themselves. Families felt the divisions and according to some reports, mothers and daughters stopped speaking with one another.
“It is a vicious circle with the big companies,” said Marlene Carvajal, whose family has lived in Caimanes for four generations. “They take the water and divide the small community. They do this all over the world, it’s not just here … when the mining company leaves, that huge tailings pit will stay and will still contaminate water. It’s not dry. It’s filled with water and that increases the chance of more water contamination.”
In 2014, the Chilean supreme court ordered Antofagasta to come up with a plan to reopen the spring that supplies the village with water. When Antofagasta produced what was deemed an unsatisfactory plan, a civil court ordered the dam to be demolished on account that it cut off water from residents. However, this ruling was eventually overturned. Months after this major victory was handed to Antofagasta, their mine was charged with nine citations for failing to comply with environmental regulations. These charges carried a potential penalty of $23.8 million and even an indefinite closure of the mine.
Despite these threats from regulatory agencies, the mine is still open, still operating, and still polluting.
Polluted water. Violence. Fractured communities. What has happened where Glencore and Antofagasta have operated is much different than the peaceable kingdom they portray in their the public relations and marketing materials.
It’s easy to think that things will be different when these companies operate in the United States, and that our laws and regulations will keep them in line. It’s true that on a political, economic, and ecological level, Minnesota is much different than Peru or Chile, and we can’t say that what happened in those countries will happen in Minnesota. Nonetheless, given their histories, inviting companies like Glencore and Antofagasta to open inherently toxic mines, a mere dozen miles apart, should raise serious concerns. Let’s not be so naïve to think that we can change how these companies operate. Too much is at risk. These are not the corporate citizens to invite into Minnesota.
A proposed joint venture could lead to a mega mine that would pollute both Lake Superior and the Boundary Waters.
It's time to start planning for your summer Boundary Waters adventure. Explore the most complete online collection of BWCA resources.
Thanks to your passion and conviction, we've achieved five crucial wins for clean water and the Boundary Waters in 2022.