Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Time to Bring in the Reserves

On August 12, 2014, MinnPost published a story by Rod Meador that asks straight up a question My Minnesota has been raising in various forms for the past several weeks: "Mine-waste release in B.C. raises question: Would better regulators oversee Minnesota mines?" The point we've been making, however, isn't limited to Minnesota's mining issues. We also have a number of limitations in our water resources management and pollution control systems, several of which overlap with our mining regulations.

We're fortunate to have the benefit of an analysis, dated 2012, of sulfide mining regulations in the Great Lakes Region. It was prepared for the National Wildlife Federation, and helps us identify where our mining system regulatory structure could use some help. Minnesota gets a rating of "fair" across the board.

From the report's Executive Summary:
Overall, Minnesota’s laws and implementation structure needs improvements in all areas. The law is adequate, but economic considerations appear to be a growing force resulting in legislative and policy changes designed not for environmental protections, but economic development."
As a recovering planner, I know that "Trend is not Destiny." I also know that the laws of inertia and momentum usually require our intervention if a trend is to be redirected or modified. I'm not aware of any material change in the way Minnesota is approaching it's management of a new form of mining with a reportedly more significant level of environmental risk than that associated with mining iron ore. I know I'm not the only living Minnesotan that recalls how long and hard an effort it was to curtail Reserve Mining's pollution.

From the linked MinnPost article by Peter Schilling Jr.:
"In a perhaps quixotic effort to save mining jobs and stop the pollution, Lord wanted both sides to work out some sort of negotiated settlement, but this failed miserably. He even called the chairman of the company, C. William Verity, to the stand, asking him in essence to stop dumping. Not only did Verity refuse, but instead he read a statement stating Reserve’s waste wasn’t dangerous, that it would bear no responsibility, and it would build a land dump provided the government pay for it. This only served to further inflame Lord, who, in April 1974, ordered the plant shut down.

"The plant was closed temporarily, but a federal appeals court allowed Reserve to reopen the mine and to continue dumping in the lake until it could find an alternative method. In 1980, Reserve began to deposit waste on an inland pond, a practice that continues with the companies that mine taconite to this day."
It's been forty years since Lord's 1974 decision. Minnesota has improved some of its environmental regulations, but our regulatory system is still has some notable holes, at least according to the NWI report. Here are what I find to be the most troublesome deficiencies in a system rated basically "fair." (The table below is taken from page 40 of the report.)

If I think carefully about it, I wonder if the financial assurance in item # 9 is going to be as effective as Minnesota may need, in light of all the "NOs" and "SOMEs" in the table. I'd much prefer a holistic financial assurance requirement, wouldn't you? The report also notes that "However, the program could be improved by increasing specificity in certain areas and by promoting environmental protection as the essential element in permitting decisions. As they stand, the regulations give significant leeway to DNR to make decisions in any number of ways, which may or may not be most protective of the environment."

Since one of the major issues associated with mining in Minnesota and elsewhere has been the need to protect the environment while providing for mining jobs (see Reserve above), I certainly would like to see those improvements called out by the report made to Minnesota's system, wouldn't you? Do you suppose anyone in DNR is working on these issues, or are they all responding to our comments on the SDEIS? Do we want to go through something like this for every proposed new mine, or do we come up with a better system? Haven't we learned our lessons from the Reserve Mining battle?

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