We cannot mine our way out of the climate crisis

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Minnesota sits on a stockpile of strategic metal that can address the climate crisis, but it’s not what you might think. It’s the dead computer in your closet, obsolete copper telecommunications wires in the ground, and the tangle of cords and old cellphones in your junk drawer. Minnesotans are hoarding massive amounts of metals that should be recycled and continue to send an astounding amount of metal every day into landfills, wasting metals essential for the energy transition.

Ron Way’s commentary “It’s time to approve the PolyMet mine” was appropriately concerned about the climate crisis, but PolyMet is not a solution. PolyMet’s open pit mine proposal would destroy thousands of acres of peatlands — one of the world’s most powerful natural carbon sinks — in the headwaters of the St. Louis River, the largest U.S. tributary to Lake Superior.

We cannot mine our way out of the climate crisis, and we should not be duped by propaganda from the mining industry into approving a dangerous mine that will release far more carbon than it will prevent. Instead, Minnesota should lead the way on recycling, reduction of electronic waste, and creating a circular economy to ensure that metals already mined are re-used. This approach provides more metal for the energy transition faster than new mining can. It’s also good stewardship of our resources.

Way is right that “copper mining has a dismal worldwide record of failing to keep toxins from leaking into the environment.” That’s why we shouldn’t throw away metals already mined. It’s also why permits issued to the PolyMet proposal have been repeatedly reversed and returned to state agencies by Minnesota courts.

The legal challenges to PolyMet’s permits are not “procedural challenges.” As a former Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) employee, Way should know that.

The Minnesota Supreme Court struck down the state permit to mine because it was based on untested reclamation plans questioned by the state’s own experts, and because the permit had no end date for completing cleanup. The Court of Appeals reversed the water pollution permit because it did not fully address the impact of PolyMet’s groundwater pollution. The Minnesota Supreme Court is currently reviewing MPCA’s actions to suppress public knowledge of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) concerns with that permit.

Federal permits have fared no better. After a federal court suspended the Trump administration’s wetland destruction permit, the EPA concluded the permit would send mercury and other pollutants downstream, polluting the water of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. The EPA has now recommended the wetlands permit not be reissued.

Instead of addressing the risks of the PolyMet mine proposal and whether its products would truly benefit the environment, Way has fallen for a new strain of mining industry “greenwashing” propaganda. We call it “Mining the Climate Crisis.” The truth is that ore from a copper-nickel mine in northern Minnesota will not have any impact on the global metal markets, and ore from a PolyMet mine would not be earmarked for clean energy.

In 2019, a PolyMet spokesperson said that copper from PolyMet “could end up anywhere” when asked if it would be used for wind turbines or solar panels. PolyMet is “neutral” on Gov. Tim Walz’s proposal for 100% clean energy in Minnesota. PolyMet’s parent company, Glencore, is one of the world’s largest coal miners. PolyMet makes no promises to be part of the climate solution. No amount of greenwashing will make these facts go away.

Now is the time to learn from past mistakes. We can’t solve the climate crisis by hurriedly extracting minerals without regard for the real consequences to people and our limited and dwindling clean water supply. PolyMet is a water quality disaster and climate pollution bomb, and would only benefit its investors, not Minnesotans.

Instead of risking our water and health on PolyMet, let’s boost our abysmal recycling rate. The U.S. recycles just 33% of its copper, compared with 60% in Europe. If we increased the U.S. copper recycling rate to just 50%, it would equal the annual copper production of 13 PolyMet mines.

Minnesota should lead this work, instead of being dazzled by the mining industry’s shiny new climate talking points.

Aaron Klemz is chief strategy officer for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy (MCEA), a nonprofit public interest law firm and advocacy organization with offices in St. Paul and Duluth. The MCEA has appealed several of the permits issued to PolyMet.


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