Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Don't eat the fish or drink the water for how long?

The good news is Governor Dayton is considering responding affirmatively to a request by a number of health professionals to have a health impact assessment done for the proposed PolyMet project. The bad news is the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, a lead agency responsible for mine permitting and the preparation of the Environmental Impact Statement has
"said it had reviewed the risks, but found no significant potential health impacts. Doing a broader review would delay completion of the final document, and would not “significantly inform the regulatory permits required for the project,” the authors of the EIS said."
Lake Superior's North Shore
Lake Superior's North Shore
Photo by J. Harrington

I don't know about you, but when it comes to health matters, especially public but including environmental health, I'd lean toward accepting the judgement of
"the Minnesota Nurses Association, Minnesota Public Health Association, Minnesota Medical Association, and others in public health have urged the state to include a human health assessment as part of the massive environmental impact analysis of the mine. In his public comment issued a year and a half ago, Ehlinger asked the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to complete a separate review of health risks, and officials from the two state agencies discussed it earlier this year as well."
Their concerns are consistent with and supported by a recently published natural history of Minnesota's North Shore, as can be seen in the following excerpts:

"North Shore", front cover

"Take, for example, the boom in exploration for nonferrous metallic minerals such as copper and nickel and precious metals such as gold, palladium, and platinum in both the U.S. and Canadian territories of the Lake Superior watershed. This includes the vast Duluth Complex, a massive bedrock formation arcing from Duluth to Grand Portage in northeastern Minnesota. These kinds of mining operations require large-scale conversions of land (in some cases more than a thousand acres) for both the ore mining and waste disposal. When exposed to air and water, the enormous volumes of waste rock generate toxic effluent laced with heavy metals that must be contained and managed for many generations. As demonstrated in countless examples from around the world, such mines have, without exception, contaminated ground and surface waters with pollutants that are lethal to aquatic and terrestrial life and pose a serious health risk to humans...." [emphasis added]

"Brook trout provide us with a yardstick for measuring the health of our waters and the wholeness of our land. As such, they present us with a dilemma, as well as a choice. The observations that writer Steve Grooms made about the efforts to restore native lake trout to the waters of the lower Great Lakes could just as easily apply to the efforts to rehabilitate coaster brook trout in the Lake Superior watershed. 'The issue,' he says in an article for Trout magazine, 'is whether managers should continue trying to restore an ecosystem destroyed by centuries of abuse, or whether they should accept the loss of some ecological integrity as a fait accompli and do the best job of managing what's left for human benefit.'"

"In other words, how accustomed have we become to the idea of extinctions?"
To take these issues a step or two further, MNDNR is faced with unreasonable and unrealistic conflicts of interest trying to both protect the environment and support mining as a revenue stream. But, take a look at the economic values associated with recreation, as noted in The Value of Nature’s Benefits in the St. Louis River Watershed
According to a survey administered in 2007 through 2008, almost six million tourists visited the northeast region of Minnesota (Minnesota DNR, 2008a). One quarter of all travelers’ expenditures (almost $400 million) were associated with recreational activities. This sum was higher than all other categories of expenditures made by visitors. User spending amounted to $628 million in 2008, and the total size of the regional trail economy was found to be $27.8 billion.
How much decline in the recreational revenue stream should we anticipate if the permits aren't rigorous enough or enforced adequately because we don't want to risk losing "new" mining jobs? When the environment continues to decline under mining's assault on resources that we should all be able to enjoy, Minnesota will continue to be faced with a number of questions, the answers to which will affect the state's public health and economic health for generations to come. Quickly getting to permitting decisions shouldn't be our highest priority. We need to get this right, and doing the same old, same old, business as usual, including forestalling those with known expertise from full participation, isn't the way to get it right.

To a Marsh Hawk in Spring

By Henry David Thoreau 

There is health in thy gray wing,
Health of nature’s furnishing.
Say, thou modern-winged antique,
Was thy mistress ever sick?
In each heaving of thy wing
Thou dost health and leisure bring,
Thou dost waive disease and pain
And resume new life again. 

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