August 19, 2015
Senator Al Franken
309 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20510
Dear Senator Franken,
In the summer of 2014, we got a call from your office inviting my husband and me to walk with you in the Tower 4th of July Parade. We were thrilled. Although we are not natives to the Iron Range, we bought a farmstead here in 1989 and it is where we have chosen to retire. We know enough about Iron Range politics to understand that the 4th of July parade circuit, in Tower, Gilbert, Eveleth, and other Range communities, is a must-do for DFL office holders and candidates. We are big – from the heart and occasionally from the pocketbook – supporters of you and Senator Klobuchar.
We walked with you proudly. We were impressed with your smart, energetic staff. And it was great to meet Franni! At the end of the parade, we stood shoulder-to-shoulder with you and the group behind a “We Support Mining” sign. We understand the calculus that required you to stand behind it and we were game because we stand by you. But, like most signs, it’s a slogan that evades some very complex and troubling issues surrounding mining in Minnesota – in particular, the efforts to introduce sulfide mining, which has never been attempted in the state before.
At this point, I will switch to the singular pronoun. My husband can write his own letter to you if he wants. My mother’s father and one of her brothers worked in the steel mills in the Mahoning Valley of eastern Ohio in the early part of the 1900s and my favorite uncle (a lifelong Democratic Party activist and former mayor of Struthers, the community in the Mahoning Valley just blocks from the steel mills) worked in management at Youngstown Sheet and Tube when the company failed in 1977 and was sold to LTV. My uncle was furious and heartbroken as he watched the new owners gut the pension plans of the employees. The economy in eastern Ohio and adjacent Pennsylvania collapsed, and my cousin, then the fire chief of Struthers, helped put out a spate of fires caused by arson as people tried to get some illicit insurance money out of their otherwise worthless property. I am proud of my working class roots. I understand the boom and bust realities at the end point – on the other side of the Great Lakes – where the iron ore from Minnesota is shipped to make steel. And although I was personally unscathed – I was born in faraway Texas because my Ohio mother married a Texan – I know the toll that boom and bust can take on the working class.
When my husband and I bought our Finnish farmstead in Embarrass in 1989, the owner was selling during one of the Iron Range bust cycles. (As it turns out, 1989 was the same year PolyMet began buying up mining leases from U.S. Steel in anticipation of bringing sulfide mining to the area.) The owner, a Finnish-speaking widow whose husband had built the home, barn, sauna, and outbuildings, was selling at quite a bargain – especially compared to real estate prices I was used to in Texas – but like good negotiators we offered her $20,000 less. I could not believe when she accepted, not even making a counteroffer for fear of losing the sale. She practically gave away her farm, and that’s when I realized just how bad the economy was on the Iron Range. We happened to be beneficiaries of those hard times. (What goes around comes around: we took a beating in 2008 during the Great Recession when we had to sell our house at a loss in Arizona so we could move back to our beloved farm in Embarrass.)
In the quarter century I have been an Iron Range property owner and quiet observer of the culture and landscape, I have never seen what a boom cycle looks like. I think it is more accurate to call it a bust-and-waiting-for-another-bust economy. There have been times of relative stability but always the undercurrent of waiting for the next downturn. The small communities on the Iron Range look relatively – tenuously – middle class, but I sense that the least little economic ill wind could blow folks down the class ladder. There is little indication in these towns that people are breaking out of a glass ceiling into the ranks of the upper middle or wealthy class. The only tangible signs of affluence in the area are along the shores of the big lakes – such as Vermilion and Burntside – where wealthy people mainly from other parts of Minnesota and the Midwest have built gorgeous summer homes. At least they pay property taxes, but they are transients.
Being rich is not the be-all and end-all. However, a spectrum of wealth in a capitalist landscape is indicative of economic diversity and opportunity. The Iron Range provides precious little economic diversity and opportunity, and it has always puzzled and troubled me that the political, business, and social leaders on the Iron Range continue to exalt and defend mining as the sacred linchpin of the regional economy rather than use their energy and positions of power to attract an array of other kinds of jobs. I acknowledge I do not know the insider details of politics and business on the Iron Range; maybe the movers and shakers are trying to diversify job opportunities but just failing. What puzzles and troubles me even more is that the Iron Range mineworkers themselves are equally defensive of an industry that has provided them neither economic stability nor a culture of good health. Based on a 2012 report, the Iron Range has the highest rates of overall mortality, DWI arrests, cirrhosis mortality, cancer mortality, diabetes, and heart disease in Minnesota.
I keep my mouth shut when I am in the company of folks with ties to mining. I don’t much care for confrontation and, like I said, I have my own ties to the steel industry, which accounts for my deep well of respect for mine and steel workers and their families. I do sense people in the mining community don’t have much tolerance for alternative viewpoints, which makes me sad and is another reason I keep my mouth shut.
I have worked all my life as a writer and editor for a variety of publications and nonprofits. In the 1970s I began to read about environmental issues, and I was befriended by a bunch of biologists and scientists, one of whom I married. I started watching birds, which is the perfect avocation for trying to understand ecosystems and disruptions to them caused by the activities of humans. I am a liberal arts type by temperament (you know, music, art, poetry). But I know that a liberal arts interpretation of the world and how it works is often unsubstantial and way too anecdotal. In fact, I find my own profession of journalism, even as it is practiced by such venerable outlets as National Public Radio and the New York Times, to be far too dependent on anecdote in explaining current affairs. Science, on the other hand, is built on hard facts, and for this reason science is the critical lens through which I view the world and form opinions about such things as environmental policy and for whom I am going to vote. This is more or less who I am and why – you perhaps have been wondering – I am writing this letter.
I would like to ask you to give your support in calling for a permanent ban on sulfide mining in the Rainy River watershed, which encompasses the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and Voyageurs National Park.
There, I’ve said it.
When we retired to Embarrass in 2008, PolyMet was four years into its still ongoing environmental review process. The proposed PolyMet mine, about ten miles from where we live, is near the Embarrass River, which flows into the Saint Louis River and then into the Great Lakes drainage basin. Twin Metals, the second proposed sulfide-mining endeavor on the Iron Range, published its prefeasibility proposal in 2014. Its mining operations, near Ely, are in the Rainy River watershed, which ultimately drains through the Boundary Waters and Voyageurs National Park into Hudson Bay.
One of the beautifully nuanced things I love about life on the Iron Range is the many ways in which water flows. We live in the midst of an intricate, intertwined system of lakes, bogs, streams, rivers, and aquifers pooling in fractured igneous and metamorphic bedrock, and just a modest variation in altitude determines whether these waters flow into the Atlantic Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico, or Hudson Bay. The water, it’s a poem. But only science can illuminate the potential risk of sulfide mining tainting or poisoning this flowage in the near or long term.
There is no such thing as a risk-free mine, and “sulfide mining poses threats that are especially severe,” according to a 2006 report about proposed sulfide mining in Wisconsin (http://www.glifwc.org/publications/pdf/SulfideMining.pdf). As the authors explain, “To a great extent, the location of a sulfide mine dictates the nature and severity of ecosystem threats. For example, when an orebody is mined near a system of numerous, interconnected lakes, streams, and wetlands, the water itself can become contaminated easily, and can transport pollutants to other water bodies and aquifers, and to living organisms.”
The proposed Twin Metals sulfide mine (and the PolyMet mine as well) are squarely situated in just such an aquatic landscape.
No country – regardless of regulatory policy or citizenry outcry – is exempt from the potential risks associated with sulfide mining. Two disasters occurred barely a month after we marched with you in the Tower Parade.
Beginning on August 4, 2014, a breach of the copper and gold tailings pond at the Mount Polley mine in British Colombia, Canada, resulted in millions of gallons of toxic sludge pouring into Quesnel Lake, described, up until the time of the spill, as “the cleanest deep water lake in the world.”
A few days later, on August 6 and 7, following several days of monsoon rains, 11 million gallons of copper sulfate acid solution spilled from a tailings basin at the Buenavista del Cobre mine in Cananea, Mexico, into the beautiful and historic Sonora River Valley, causing widespread devastation to the towns, ranches, farms, and thermal hot springs along the river. My husband and I spend part of each year in Sonora and happened to be there when the disaster occurred. Because we know and love the Sonora Valley, we experienced all the anecdotal despair and frustration along with the farmers, cattlemen, and townspeople in the 400-year-old communities of Banámachi, Aconchi, and Aripze.(See http://tucson.com/news/local/livelihoods-washed-away-by-toxic-spill-in-sonora/article_5b8007ef-82f1-5db1-901f-c4fba8cc1b06.html and http://www.mining-technology.com/projects/cananaeacoppermine/.)
The Mount Polley and Buenavista del Cobre mining disasters occurred at active operations. This summer, on August 5, 2015, the Gold King mine spill on the Animas River in Colorado occurred at a mine site that closed almost a hundred years ago. The toxins remain decades after the jobs go away. And while major spills capture headlines and create a great deal of angst, what is more insidious is the silent seeping of pollutants that can occur at active and abandoned mine sites.
The Gold King has steadily been leaking toxic waste – 176 gallons per minute in 2011, according to a recent New York Times article
(see http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/17/us/animas-river-colorado-mine-spill-epa.html?_r=0). The big paradox of the Gold King spill: it was caused by the Environmental Protection Agency, which was investigating the source of the leak when contract workers poked a hole in the tailings pond unleashing 3 million gallons of waste water laced with cadmium, lead, and arsenic into a tributary of the Animas River. So our mines are not even safe from our environmental protectors.
More eco-despair ensued for my husband and me in solidarity with all the folks who live and work along the Animas. One of our favorite brewpubs in the country is in Farmington, New Mexico, which sits at the confluence of the San Juan, Animas, and La Plata rivers. Good beer needs good water. I called up Three Rivers Brewery last week to see if the Gold King disaster was going to impact their beer production. The young woman I talked to said they brew beer from water in a nearby lake unaffected by the spill. But I could hear the eco-despair in her voice.
The media coverage of these mining disasters subsides along with the hue and cry. What remains is the simple fact that at some point in time another disaster will occur and in the interim active and shuttered mines are likely to seep and ooze.
On the brink of sulfide mining arriving in Minnesota, the question that confronts you and other elected officials in Minnesota, federal and state policy makers, and the people on the Iron Range is what is the acceptable level of risk in a mining process that is inherently risky in order to create jobs that will cease when the mines inevitably play out.
To quote again from the 2006 report about sulfide mining in Wisconsin: “Unfortunately, even the best available science and technology cannot prevent environmental damage. Thus, the decision to allow mining is not a question of whether to permit environmental damage. It is a determination of the nature and extent of the damage and the uncertainty that is “acceptable” as a matter of public policy. Proper public policy decision can only be made by understanding the nature of environmental threats posed and acknowledging that science and technology provide no guarantees.”
Based on this technical assessment, both the PolyMet and Twin Metals proposed sulfide-mining operations pose inherent and long-term environmental threats to the complex aquatic ecosystems in which they would be embedded. For the purposes of this letter, I am setting aside my personal opinion about PolyMet for another day.
It is no easy matter to weigh our treasures. There are all the economic and societal benefits of good jobs and the pride that comes from hard work that, in turn, supports our nation’s industrial and manufacturing strength. Then, there are the incalculable ecosystems services provided by vast aquatic landscapes – the treasures of clean water, clean air, nutrient recycling, buffering of climate change, and rejuvenation of the spirit in wilderness adventure.
Now, after reading what I can – it is very hard to find nonpartisan information about sulfide mining – and thinking very hard in a rational, scientific, nonpartisan way, I believe the Rainy River watershed and the millions of acres of waterways and forests it encompasses in the borderlands of the United States and Canada is a greater treasure than the copper, nickel, gold, silver, and palladium Twin Metals would extract during the relatively short lifetime of the project. I will hope you come to the same conclusion.
P.S. If you decide to stand with the Twin Metals sulfide-mining project as being essential to the Iron Range economy and choose to run for election in 2020, will I still vote for you? Of course I will. (I hope you do run.) The same goes for Senator Klobuchar. If you – and she – decide sulfide mining, at least in the Rainy River Boundary Waters Voyageurs watershed, is not worth the inherent risks, I can only hope the mining-equals-jobs contingent of Iron Range voters would be as magnanimous as those of us who wish you hadn’t but would still vote for you.
Senator Amy Klobuchar
Governor Mark Dayton
Congressman Rick Nolan