Proposed sulfide mining in north central Minnesota puts too much at risk

October 25, 2023 8:00 am

The confluence of Big Sandy Lake and the Mississippi River. Photo by Rob Levine for Minnesota Reformer.

People from the Twin Cities metro are accustomed to viewing northern Minnesota as part of the state’s great outdoors experience and diverse ecosystems. Thoughts flash to pristine lakes, an abundance of wildlife and expansive forests.  This recreational paradise generates millions of dollars in economic activity annually, supporting hundreds of steady jobs — plus  a solid cabin and lakeshore tax base that supports many communities. 

Northern Minnesota is also Anishinaabe homelands, and one of the last places where manoomin (wild rice) grows in our rivers and lakes. This plant is the sacred sustenance of our Ojibwe and Dakota neighbors. It’s a fragile yet sustainable plant that requires clean water to flourish. That means that any change in the ecosystem — too much rainfall, too little, storms or high winds — can damage a wild rice crop.

A wild rice area in Flowage Lake, about 10 miles west and northwest of the proposed Talon sulfide mine in Tamarack, Minnesota. The wetlands directly west of the proposed mine are some of the most fertile wild rice fields in the entire state of Minnesota. Photo by Rob Levine for Minnesota Reformer.

Today we face added environmental threats, including pollutants that endanger the delicate balance of the ecosystem that sustains wild rice and Native culture and people. Given the rich deposits of copper, nickel, titanium and cobalt, these lands are also prime targets for extractive industries. Indigenous and non-Native alike now see protracted interest from foreign mining companies such as Talon Metals and its business partner Rio Tinto-Kennecott. These partners have filed for environmental review of a proposed nickel mine in the Tamarack, Minnesota area, purportedly for use in the manufacture of batteries for electric vehicles. The site is located in rural Aitkin County, just two hours north of the Twin Cities. 

The sulfide mining necessary to obtain these minerals releases toxins into the air and water. This is especially true of mines situated in wet environments like Tamarack, which is part of the Mississippi River watershed, which in turn is an important wildlife habitat and source of water for millions in the Twin Cities and states to the south.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently revoked a critical water permit that had been granted to a subsidiary of the multinational mining conglomerate Glencore. This permit would have permitted the Polymet project to destroy wetlands and discharge pollutants in violation of water quality standards set by the Fond du Lac Band. And, last year, the U.S. Department of Interior also put a 20-year moratorium on this type of mining near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, which alone accounts for an estimated $17 million in economic activity each year.

While these are positive developments, the recent announcement from Talon and Rio Tinto-Kennecott to seek permits for its Tamarack mine is not. Sulfide mining and water are a dangerous mix, and the impacts are far reaching. In this case, highly toxic discharges and the degradation of the watershed would directly impact the heart of wild rice country, and ultimately, the Mississippi River.

The Legislature made progress on clean energy and environmental justice this past session, but Gov. Tim Walz and lawmakers have not made the same commitment to clean water. 

As people who live and have roots in north central Minnesota, why do we hear so little from the Walz administration on the undeniable threat sulfide mining poses to our waters and our ways of life? 

One answer that many seem afraid to give is that the “green” in “green energy” actually means money: Who ultimately profits from mining proposals, and who bears the costs? It’s no surprise that mining companies spend millions of dollars on marketing before they even share a mine plan or any scientific data with local stakeholders, promoting themselves as “green” and “responsible” to the local communities they put at risk.

They hire local spokespeople, buy out local property owners, and funnel grant money into local businesses and community organizations. They also support political candidates and hire local officials to lobby our state and federal government. 

So, let’s cut to the chase: We do not need to mine nickel near our precious Mississippi River and manoomin to have clean energy.

A recent report from the Iron Range Partnership for Sustainability and the nonprofit Repowered indicates that we could obtain more of the metals needed for energy transition and create more jobs, if we prioritize e-waste recycling in our state. These metals are just as valuable recycled as they are mined.

I encourage residents of the Twin Cities to pay attention and resist the greenwashing of sulfide mining that is currently underway. Do not buy false climate solutions that pit clean energy against clean water, Native against non-native, and rural against urban interests. Your drinking water — and our beloved northland — depend on it.

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