Monday, March 10, 2014

Permitting Pollution

Minnesota Public Radio asked the following question – “Are you confident the proposed PolyMet mine would avoid polluting Minnesota’swater?

My answer follows.  

Having worked for 30 years in the environmental field, I have come to understand that environmental regulations are not designed to prevent industry from polluting; they are actually designed to permit industries to pollute.  The goal of the writers of these permits is of course to encourage the mine operators to manage the pollutants as best they can, so as to not cause any immediate threats to the surrounding ecosystem out of which the mine will be carved. 

But pollution will occur despite our best attempts to manage it; even if there were no accidents, no equipment failures, or no operational negligence along the way.  Therefore, as long as a mine is permitted to occur, it will pollute.  And those pollutants will get into the people, plants, and animals that depend on that ecosystem for their life. 

The process will begin when the land which is to be mined is cleared off all life that exists there.  Runoff from the now denuded and disturbed landscape will begin to be carried off the site by stormwater and wind, despite permit requirements that require the mine to "control" this runoff with best management practices. 

The equipment used to clear the site, and mine the mine, will pollute the air when the fossil fuels that power the equipment is burned in the engines the move the equipment.  The pollution laden exhausts will then expand into the atmosphere, where the pollutants will dissolve or be suspended in the moisture in the air, where eventually some of them will fall to the ground and run into our surface and ground waters.

As the mining process continues, the overburden from the mine will be stockpiled, and when the rains and the winds contact it, sediments containing minerals and heavy metals that have been sealed in the earth will be exposed to the biosphere, and the pollutants they contain will again continue to run off the site, again despite any best management practices or treatment required by a permit.  Sure these practices will again prevent some pollution from running off site, but no best management practice or treatment system is 100% effective.  And the reality is that any treatment system used to treat the runoff will require more fuel to operate it, resulting in more pollutant containing exhaust to be released into the air.  

Eventually the mine will reach the groundwater levels.  And when the natural biological and physical filtration system that took billions of years to be placed is removed from the site, some of the sediments containing minerals and heavy metals that are mobilized in the mining process, and some of the equipment fuel or lubrication fluids that spill in the mine will find their way into the groundwater, again despite any requirements that the permit specifies to minimize these impacts or cleanup the spills.

And then when the mining process is finished, and hopefully the mine is “reclaimed” the metals and minerals and sulfates that will remain will continue to leach into to the groundwater and stormwater that contacts them.  And again, any treatment systems or management practices required by a permit will only remove a portion of the pollution they contain, the rest will be released back into the surrounding ecosystem and the now permanently changed ecosystem of the “reclaimed” mine. 

So the only way to be confident that the proposed PolyMet mine would avoid polluting Minnesota’s water, would require the concluder to not understand the permitting and mining process.

The question I have – is pollution of our ecosystem worth the benefits of some short-term jobs, some metals to make some more stuff, some tax money for the state, and potentially huge profits for the mining company?

 If your answer is “yes”, I would ask – is this the best we can do?   

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