Fighting to protect clean water and the BWCA at the capitol

Advocacy

Minnesota is the land of sky-blue waters, the land of 10,000 lakes. It’s a place that is famous throughout the country for its lakes and rivers. This is the home to the Boundary Waters, to Voyageurs National Park, to the headwaters of the Mississippi River.

But the water that makes the state so famous is under threat.

Proposed copper-nickel sulfide mines, from the edge of the Boundary Waters to the headwaters of the Mississippi, put our water in danger.

Stopping this toxic industry has been a major issue for almost two decades, and yet, there has been little to no movement in the state legislature to address the problem.

In fact, there has not been a legislative hearing on copper-nickel-sulfide mining in over a decade.

This 2024 legislative session, we were hoping to change that.

With ample support from legislators from around the state, we were prepared to hold an informal hearing on Prove It First (S.F. 1416/H.F. 1618). The bill simply states that before a copper-sulfide mine in Minnesota can be permitted, there must be independent scientific proof that a copper-sulfide mine has operated elsewhere in the United States for at least ten years without causing pollution and that a mine has been closed for at least ten years without causing pollution.

However, shortly into the new legislative session, leadership from the Democratic Farmer Labor (DFL) quietly canceled a hearing for the Prove It First bill, which would address many of the long-standing concerns over copper-sulfide mining in the state.

Denying the hearing set off longstanding tensions between DFL leadership and representatives and constituents who demand more clean water protection. 

Despite this, we held an open, public hearing on Thursday, February 22, 2024 at 2:00 PM.

The hearing included testimony from representatives from Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, mining experts, an eyewitness to the 2014 Mount Polley Mine disaster, and more.

A complete recording of these powerful testimonies is available to watch.

And if you wish, you can also read the complete transcript of the testimony by downloading this .pdf, or by simply scrolling down.


Public Hearing on the Need for Prove It First 

(SF 1416 / HF 1618) 

Minnesota State Capitol, Room G23

February 22, 2024

Presiding Officers

Rep. Connie Bernardy (retired)               Rep. Steve Sandell (retired)

Testimony of Chris Knopf

Executive Director of Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness

__________

Good afternoon. I am Chris Knopf, the Executive Director of Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness. 

As a child, I learned the vital importance of clean water. I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio at a time when Cleveland became famous around the world for its water. It was the city where the river caught fire. 

Cleveland’s economic decline coincided with this environmental calamity. Would you want to live in a place that was so dirty that its river literally burned? 

I moved to Minnesota and have raised my family here. My children have grown up in the land of sky-blue water. 

Clean water is our identity in Minnesota.

Clean water makes Minnesota a great place to live. Our lives in Minnesota revolve around our clean water. This is where we teach our grandchildren to swim, catch fish with friends, and cement those friendships and bonds that make life meaningful.

Clean water is Minnesota’s most important natural resource. 

There are more than 1,200 lakes in the Boundary Waters and 11,842 lakes throughout all of Minnesota. We have the greatest of the Great Lakes – Lake Superior – that holds ten percent of the world’s freshwater. We are the headwaters of the Mississippi River.

For decades, our clean water has been under threat from sulfide-ore mining, the most polluting industry in the United States. Sulfide mining is different from Minnesota’s traditional iron mining. This type of toxic mining has never been done in Minnesota. Sulfide mining produces sulfuric acid – battery acid – when the mined rock is exposed to water. 

Right now, there are three sulfide mines that threaten Minnesota’s clean water:

  • Twin Metals, owned by Antofagasta, threatens the Boundary Waters. 
  • PolyMet, owned by Glencore, threatens Lake Superior.
  • Talon, owned by Rio Tinto, threatens the headwaters of the Mississippi River.

In the controversy over sulfide mining, two things are abundantly clear. First, Minnesota simply does not have the laws to protect its clean water against this industry. Second, as our victories in the courtroom have shown, Minnesota regulators are unwilling to properly enforce the laws that are already on the books. 

We are here today, not to demand extreme legislation, but to ask the Minnesota Legislature to take common-sense measures to protect what makes Minnesota a great home to five million people: our clean water.

We ask the Minnesota Legislature to pass Prove It First.

Prove It First is simple. Prove It First requires sulfide mining companies to first prove there is one example where this type of mining has been done elsewhere in the United States without polluting before it is done in Minnesota.  

No proof. No mine. 

The simplest questions are often the most profound. That is the case here. If they can’t point to one example where sulfide mining has been done safely, then why would we do it here in Minnesota?

We are on this Earth for just a short time. We borrow it from future generations.

Clean water is our heritage in Minnesota. We are blessed with clean water.

The generation that came before me gave me a river in my hometown that caught fire. That was my heritage as a child.

If we poison our clean water in Minnesota with sulfide mining, we will not be able to look future generations in the eye. We will have defiled our heritage and broken that sacred trust and bond with future generations.

I ask the Minnesota Legislature to protect our clean water. I ask that it pass Prove It First. Thank you.

Testimony of Kelly Applegate 

Commissioner of Natural Resources, Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe 

__________

Aaniin, Boozhoo. Misko-asin nindizhinikaaz. Migizi nindoodem. Misi-zaaga’iganing

nindoonjibaa. My name is Kelly Applegate, and I am the Commissioner of Natural Resources for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. I am also a member of the Mille Lacs Band. 

Prove It First’s requirement that mining organizations prove they can operate without damaging the environment is an issue of great importance to the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is currently reviewing a proposal for a nickel-sulfide mine in Tamarack, Minnesota, located just 1.3 miles from the homes of our tribal members and cultural resources, like the sites where we harvest manoomin (wild rice), medicinal plants, fish, game, maple sap, and birch bark.  

It is for this reason why the Mille Lacs Band is disappointed that there have been political decisions to cancel the legislative hearing on the issue of sulfide mining.

Nickel-sulfide mines have a long history of damaging the surrounding land and watersheds and leave a legacy of contamination long after they’ve been closed or abandoned. There’s no evidence that these mines can operate safely. 

In a water-rich environment like Minnesota, impacts to the health of our watersheds ripple out across the environment. Our pristine wetlands recharge drinking water for our communities. Interconnected wetlands carry water across the landscape and link to rivers, streams, lakes and groundwater flows. Critical drinking water sources and aquatic habitats throughout the Mississippi and St. Croix River watersheds could be impacted by the pollution associated with nickel-sulfide mines. And the size of the proposed Tamarack Mine continues to expand, which would put more resources at risk. 

Without proof that pollution-free operations are possible, sulfide mining in Minnesota’s pristine ecosystem is a high-stakes experiment that we are not willing to be a part of.

Certain mining projects, like the proposed Tamarack Mine, are advanced in the name of green energy—justifying their need to support electric vehicle battery production. We believe the pursuit of clean energy technology and solutions to the climate crisis are crucial. But not at the expense of Indigenous people, the broader Minnesota population, our environment, and our water. Minnesota and the nation haven’t fully explored other options to meet nickel demand, like recycling nickel and metal waste, and we caution against a false sense of urgency to approve mining plans without proper due diligence and proof that they will not pollute. 

It was in this spirit that we launched Water Over Nickel, an initiative led by the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and allied organizations and experts, dedicated to protecting Minnesota’s water, environment and communities from the risks associated with nickel-sulfide mining.

Our efforts are grounded in our commitment to preserve Minnesota’s natural environment and water resources for generations to come. There is an Anishinaabe teaching that our people have. We are to care for our Earth, for those yet unborn and the next seven generations to come. If we make good decisions, we can protect the Earth and water and know that the next seven generations can have a good life. 

Testimony of Mike Maleska 

Iron ore miner for 42 years and local union president, retired

__________

Good afternoon. My name is Mike Maleska, a life-long resident of the rural Hibbing area, right in the heart of the Iron Range. I was an iron ore miner, working in one of the taconite mines for about 42 years, also serving as union steward and even local union president.

Now before Minnesotans and their elected representatives allow foreign mining companies to lurch forward opening copper-nickel sulfide mines, which, by the way, is a type of mining that has never been done in our state, I’d like you to consider this:

Say, for instance, the companies that intend to undertake this venture are in it for profit (and they are).

And say, for instance, without proof, without evidence, these companies make claims such as “modern technology and science have made pollution a thing of the past” (believe me, I hear it all the time and I’m sure you do too).

And say, for instance, the citizens come to believe that copper-nickel mining can be done without polluting – and not just the people, but our state and federal agencies come to believe this.

And say, for instance, that those state and federal agencies are gullible enough to permit these mines and we end up having the most-polluting industry in the country operating in the most pristine part of the most pristine state in the USA.

Let me repeat that – the most-polluting industry operating in the most pristine part of the most pristine state in the USA.

Then let’s say someone notices a fish kill, or there’s always dust in the air and the kids are always coughing, or you hear “what’s that nasty smell,” or another mysterious illness appears in the area, or you see “NO SWIMMING” signs start popping up.

And say, for instance, it’s discovered that the mine operator is poisoning our land, air and water. What then? Will the mine be closed? What agency or individual has the courage to do that?

As a former miner and elected union rep, I know that shutting down a mine is incredibly difficult, one might say impossible, never mind how dirty it is.

For example, at a mine I worked at, after decades of asbestos-like fibers and fugitive silica dust problems, the Mine Safety and Health Administration ordered the crushers to be shut off when workers were in those buildings. Well, surely regulators and mining companies invested in better filters or engineering solutions to fix this potentially lethal problem, right? Wrong. 

Their solution was to make men shave their beards and put on a mask. Rather than ask the mine to change, they asked the people to change. 

Here is a mine creating a hazardous discharge, and rather than remedy the problem, it chose to modify the humans rather than spend the money to address toxic emissions.

So I ask, how much will our communities, our lakes, rivers, forests, and air be expected to change in order to accommodate sulfide ore mining – this much more polluting type of mining?

I don’t want to see the answer to that question. What I want to see is some courage from our legislators to make the mining companies do one simple thing: show proof that they won’t pollute before they’re allowed to put a shovel in the ground.

Testimony of Doug Watt 

Witness to the Mount Polley mining disaster and former mine worker 

__________

Hello, my name is Doug Watt, a 25-plus-year resident of Likely, British Columbia, Canada, on the shores of the once-pristine Quesnel Lake. I had previously worked at the Mount Polley Mine as a mill operations supervisor and a metallurgist. The Mount Polley Mine is a copper-sulfide mine with a wet tailings storage facility dam design — similar to the proposed Polymet mine. I was also the Environmental Superintendent at a tungsten mine.

Quesnel Lake, a large fjord lake with depths of over 2,000 feet, is a place that was known for its clear water and trophy rainbow trout. There was a time we would eat the fish I caught and drink water directly from the lake, but that is no longer the case. In the early morning of August 4, 2014, I woke to a phone call. On the other end was a voice, urgently telling me to stop using the water, to get my boat out of the lake, and to be prepared to evacuate.

The tailings dam at the Mount Polley Mine had breached, and a slurry of toxic tailings were pouring into Hazeltine Creek, Polley Lake and Quesnel Lake. Stepping outside, I heard a roar, like Niagara Falls. This was the sound of the millions of gallons of mining sludge, tailings and trees pouring into Quesnel Lake. It took days for the flow from the breached tails pond to diminish and weeks before the mine got it slowed to a trickle.

All together, more than 6 billion gallons (25 million cubic meters) of tailings solids, water, and refuse were deposited into Quesnel Lake. Over the next two years, another 7.5 to 10 billion gallons (30 to 40 million cubic meters) of virtually untreated mine-tailings contaminated water followed. Since operations resumed, the mine is now permitted to discharge up to 2.6 billion gallons (10 million cubic meters) of their virtually untreated effluent annually into the lake.

How did this happen? How did they get this so wrong? Well, we were misled from the beginning.

During public meetings that were held in the planning stages in the 1990s, residents demanded no effluent discharge into pristine Quesnel Lake. The mining company and their consultants promised a zero-discharge operation (net negative water balance). During the permitting process, we were assured that, through modern technology, this would be a safe mine and not harm the surrounding environment. But we have learned that when the proponent or consultant said, “use best available technology,” they actually meant “this is the cheapest available technology we think we can get away with,” and unfortunately the regulators accepted it.

Even before the disaster, the mine operation had polluted the waters of Polley Lake, degrading the lake’s trophic status with nutrients. The regulators did not even notice this was occurring until the public pointed out the report to them.

Immediately after the disaster, the government made a lot of promises. The BC Premier promised to hold the mine responsible and restore Quesnel Lake back to its previous pristine condition. Only one promise was kept: that the mine resumed operations in 2015 and discharged virtually untreated effluent into Quesnel Lake.

Now the Quesnel Lake ecosystem and the public are bearing the consequences. Do you know the number of charges and penalties that have been issued to date: Zero. That’s right, zero.

There were no consequences for the mining company. No government agency penalized the company for mismanagement and polluting the environment!

Today, I don’t eat the fish out of Quesnel Lake. I no longer drink water from the lake. The water, which was once so clear, is cloudy and murky, and water filters plug up quickly. There is rock slime (we call it “rocksnot”) and algae. Many of us trusted the regulators, and trusted the mining company.

We believed them when they said this could be done safely, and now, we are living with the consequences.

What happened at Quesnel Lake with the Mount Polley Mine wet TSF storage dam failure, is also happening all over the world, and it could happen to you in Minnesota as well. Thank you.

Testimony of Dr. Steven Emerman

Internationally recognized mining expert, owner Malach Consulting

__________

I am Dr. Steven Emerman. I was a professor of geology for over 30 years. I have studied and worked on issues related to water and mining for over 40 years. 

I will say three things:

  1. Sulfide-ore mining poses a threat to clean water.
  2. The sulfide mining industry has a perfect track record of water pollution.
  3. The threat to clean water lasts forever.

Sulfide ores are ore bodies in which the commodity of value, such as copper or nickel, is found in the form of a sulfide mineral. Examples of sulfide minerals are chalcopyrite, which is a copper sulfide, or pentlandite, which is a nickel sulfide. When these sulfide minerals are excavated, crushed, and exposed at the surface to oxygen and water, the sulfide minerals convert to sulfuric acid with release of the heavy metals into the dissolved form. This reaction is especially problematic for the tailings, the wet and crushed rock particles that remain after the copper or nickel has been extracted, which is more than 99% of the ore body. When this mixture of sulfuric acids and heavy metals leaks into surface water or groundwater, it is called acid mine drainage. The copper and nickel mines proposed by PolyMet, Twin Metals, and Talon Metals would all be sulfide ore mines, while the existing iron-ore mines in Minnesota are not sulfide mines.

The sulfide mining industry has a perfect track record of water pollution. I repeat: A perfect track record of pollution. During the moratorium on sulfide ore mining in Wisconsin from 1997 to 2017, 10 mines were put forward as examples of sulfide ore mines that had never caused water pollution. All of these examples were discredited because, in actuality, they really did have records of water pollution. These same 10 mines are now being recycled as examples of sulfide ore mines without water pollution, even though they have already been discredited, which is the best proof of all that there are no examples.

I encourage you to read my report entitled, “The Minnesota Prove It First Bill and the Myth of Sulfide Ore Mining without Environmental Contamination.” 

I will address one of the fake success stories. The Flambeau mine in Wisconsin was operated by Rio Tinto only from 1993 to 1997. Even to this day, the copper concentration in Stream C, which crosses the mine site before it joins with the Flambeau River, has been so high that the stream is nearly devoid of life and has been placed on the EPA List of Impaired Waters. The Certificate of Completion of Reclamation that the mine received in December 2022 indicated only that the mining company had completed its reclamation plan, not that the reclamation plan had been successful in avoiding pollution. 

The notion that this kind of mining has been done without polluting the surrounding water system is simply a myth.

The threat to clean water lasts forever. The tailings will be permanently stored on the surface, so that there will be a permanent threat of leakage from the tailings or even a catastrophic collapse of the tailings disposal facility. Is this the curse that we want to leave to future generations in Minnesota?

Testimony of Fred Campbell and Bruce Johnson

Retired state regulators with Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

__________

Thank you for the opportunity to present testimony. I’m Bruce Johnson, a retired Environmental Scientist. I worked on the Regional Copper Nickel Study in the late 1970s, and later with DNR and MPCA, I investigated polluting chemicals from two documented Duluth Complex sources of sulfide contamination – the Dunka mine waste rock piles near Birch Lake, and the tailings and waste rock at the AMAX sulfide deposit near Babbitt.

I am Fred Campbell, a retired Hydrologist. Prior to my job at the MPCA, I worked for the DNR on the Regional Copper Nickel Study, and worked for AMAX at their sulfide deposit, currently leased by Teck, and is part of the joint venture with PolyMet known as NewRange Copper Nickel LLC.

We want to talk about the unwillingness of state agencies to control pollution from a taconite mine that removed and stockpiled rocks from the overlying Duluth Complex, the same rocks that NewRange and Twin Metals want to mine for copper-nickel sulfides.

In 30 years of taconite operations at the Dunka Pit near Babbitt, the mining company stockpiled 47 million tons of Duluth Complex sulfide-bearing rock. This waste rock created toxic runoff that drained into Unnamed Creek, and ultimately into Birch Lake. Water quality monitoring shows that the release of toxic chemicals violated numerous water quality standards. Active treatment of these drainages failed to fully comply with state standards and was costly. DNR developed passive wetland treatment, but the drainage continued to exceed standards. MPCA illegally issued a permit that failed to comply with its own rules. MPCA then stated the drainage was in full compliance with the permit. This allowed DNR and MPCA management and mining companies to declare wetland treatment a success. 

It is important to emphasize that the proposed copper-sulfide mines would produce much larger volumes of toxic waste rock. PolyMet waste rock volumes alone will be five times that of Dunka. The problems these sulfide mines create would also be much larger.

Exploration data from numerous companies, including PolyMet, Twin Metals and Teck, clearly show that the variable thickness and sulfide content of these deposits will make it difficult to segregate potential ore from associated waste rock. These waste rocks and tailings contain toxic chemicals, including but not limited to metals, such as nickel and arsenic; asbestiform minerals such as serpentine; and chlorides. These chemicals are proven to cause negative impacts to the environment and human health if they are released.

Available geologic data strongly suggest that other currently unidentified toxic chemicals are also released from Duluth Complex sulfide rock.

In 47 years, MPCA and DNR have not yet controlled pollution from the waste rock source at the Dunka Pit. How can these regulators possibly protect waters from multiple full-scale sulfide mines?

Minnesota’s existing legal and regulatory framework cannot protect us from the dangers of toxic sulfide mining. To adequately protect human health and the environment, Minnesota needs to adopt the proposed “Prove It First” legislation.

Testimony of Geri Nelson

Clean water advocate for 50 years

__________

Good afternoon. I’m Geri Nelson, a lifelong advocate for clean water and wilderness.Almost every summer growing up, our family vacationed on Basswood Lake in the heart of the Boundary Waters. We fished, enjoyed a shore lunch of walleye or northerns, picked blueberries and cooled off in the clear waters of a sand beach.

When my husband Darby and I got married, one of several honeymoon trips that summer was a canoe trip through many small lakes including Lakes One, Two and Three with more time on portages than on the water. Many trips later, first with our children, then our grandchildren, our spirits were renewed by our time on the water.

On one expedition early in our marriage, we left the cook kit in the car. Darby carved two spoons with a jack knife with a loose blade, and we cooked in cans and a rusty pie plate we found at an abandoned cabin. After two weeks of such simple living, we realized how superfluous material goods were to our joy and peace in life. This experience colored our entire life together, a touchstone for simple living. Life-changing experiences so often happen in wilderness.

All Minnesotans value clean water, but Darby did more than enjoy it; he actively strove to protect and improve it. He served as the first treasurer of the Friends of the Boundary

Waters, testified before the U.S. Senate Committee in 1978 for wilderness status for the Boundary Waters, taught environmental science to students at Anoka Ramsey, and sponsored environmental legislation in the Minnesota House in the 80s. One of Darby’s signature pieces of legislation was the Soil and Water Conservation District Act that came about through working with multiple water-related stakeholders to reach consensus on how to better manage and protect our clean water. After working hard to pass the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment, he served on the first Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council.

Finally, after his diagnosis with Mild Cognitive Impairment, we did 150 events with his first book, For Love of Lakes, and he wrote his second book, For Love of a River: The Minnesota. Our lives centered on water advocacy.

There is a long tradition in Minnesota of coming together to protect our clean water. I am proud of having been a part of that tradition. I am here today to ask the Minnesota Legislature to step forward and continue to protect our most precious natural resource: Clean Water.

Prove It First is a common-sense bill that simply asks for proof that these mining companies won’t pollute the pristine water that has nurtured the spirits of so many people. Thank you.

Testimony of Claire Peterson

Student at Lakeville North High School

__________

My name is Claire Peterson. I am 17 years old, a senior in high school, and currently attend the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. Over the past two years I have been a high school intern at the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge, and this past summer I was a youth environmental justice advocate at Climate Generation, where I helped organize a conservation conference for youth around the Twin Cities. When I was younger, I would go hiking with my dad: to Duluth along the North Shore, the river at Interstate State Park, and the bank of the Mississippi River bottoms. These experiences have allowed me to realize my passion for the outdoors. Someday I hope to become an environmental engineer, where I will work to protect what little natural spaces we have left and bridge the gap between the built and natural worlds. 

Last summer, I was able to visit the Boundary Waters Canoe Area for the first time in my 17 years of existence. It might be confusing as to why someone, who has not even graduated high school, has only been to the Boundary Waters once, and has no experience in political activism, is here to speak to you today. Despite all this, I know, without a doubt, that the Boundary Waters is a special place. It has the ability to connect people to each other and the world around them in a way that no other place can. While I was in the Boundary Waters, I got to see loons and snapping turtles, beavers and minks, garter snakes and eagles. I even got to hug a 1,000-year-old cedar tree! I hauled 30-pound bags and canoes through the wilderness for four days. My crew and I woke up at 5:00 a.m. every morning so we could get an early start on paddling. We had to work together to support and motivate each other through long portages. It was hard, but through it all I got to connect with my peers. It was a beautiful and wonderful experience that I am deeply privileged to have shared with my friends. I know I will cherish the memories I made in the Boundary Waters for the rest of my life.

My hope for the future is that young people like myself can continue to discover and fall in love with the Boundary Waters, where they can witness its unspoiled beauty year after year. The decision to pass the Prove It First bill will not only affect the next 20 years, it will affect the next 70 years of my life. I, for one, would much rather spend the rest of my life planning trips to the Boundary Waters with my family, rather than trying to cleanse it of sulfide sludge. 

I urge you to act. The Boundary Waters is a sanctuary that should be preserved for the future. Just as people need the Boundary Waters, the Boundary Waters needs us.

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