Blog from Scott Strand, Executive Director

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Read Scott's thoughts on important environmental issues in Minnesota, the United States, and worldwide.


Water issues in rural Minnesota

Interesting report from the Center for Rural Policy and Development, based in Mankato, on water quantity and water quality issues in rural Minnesota.  Lots of useful information, but not much if any discussion of agricultural practices, which is the elephant in the living room of discussions about water in the rural part of our state. 

Apparently Long Overdue Inspection of Mine Tailings Dams

The Globe and Mail in Toronto reports that Canadian and British Columbia officials are now conducting inspections of every tailings basin in the province, 98 of them in total, 31 for active mines.  The goal is to avoid any more Mount Polley disasters.

Another Mining Disaster

With the Mount Polley tailings basin collapse still fresh in our minds, here comes word of another containment facility breach, this time at the Buenavista mine just over the US border in Mexico. What is important to remember is that all of these mines passed engineering tests that demonstrated how they would comply with environmental laws, but none of them have been able to engineer out human error and lax supervision.

Mount Polley Mine Disaster and PolyMet

GUEST BLOG by Jill Bathke, Natural Resource Scientist

Photo: Reuters

On August 4th, the dam holding together a tailings basin at the Mount Polley Mine in British Columbia, Canada​ ​ failed. ​The result was the discharge of 2.6 billion gallons of water and 5.9 million cubic yards of potentially toxic silt ​into​ ​wetlands, streams and lakes​ ​covering an area the size of NYC's Central Park. The current projected cost of removing the toxic waste? $200- 500 million​; although Dr. Peter Ross​,​ head ​of​ Vancouver Aquarium’s ocean pollution research program​, has​ said that the waste will be “virtually impossible to clean up​."​

What does a tailings basin dam failure at a copper and gold mine in British Columbia, Canada have to do with PolyMet? One correlation (of many) is Knight Piesold.

​This consulting firm completed the initial Mount Polley tailings basin design and engineering​ work,​ in addition to supervising its construction. ​Knight Piesold is also ​one of the​ reviewers​ of the PolyMet tailings basin design proposed in the Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement (SDEIS). ​If the name rings a bell, they are also the same company who told the EPA in 2013 that​ ​"[m]odern dam design technologies are based on proven scientific/engineering principles, and there is no basis for asserting that they will not stand the test of time.”

As Aaron Brown wrote in the StarTribune, "Mining the minerals we use in everyday products is inherently risky and, to some degree, inherently necessary. The question for Northern Minnesota is whether the need for and benefit from new nonferrous mining is greater than the risks and costs. Incidentally, this is what mining companies talk about behind boardroom doors. Communities and states should do the same, and lay out the considerations plainly in public view.​ ​What happened in British Columbia simply must not be allowed to happen in Minnesota; the effects would be culturally and economically devastating.​"​

​In response to the concern of a tailings basin failure in Minnesota, PolyMet's spokesperson has said that​​ PolyMet has "a high level of confidence that our tailings impoundment is and will remain safe" and that third-party engineering consultants will be hired to confirm the safety of their plans once the project is permitted.​ ​It is likely that the operators of the Mount Polley Mine also told Canadian regulators a similar story.​​ Unfortunately, as MCEA sees it, PolyMet's stated confidence isn't worth a grain of tailings without ​a ​comprehensive analysis of PolyMet's tailings basin design, plans for on-going monitoring and contingencies ​and a realistic financial assurance package​.


Financial assurance lawsuit

A number of groups filed suit against EPA this week, seeking a court order directing  EPA to come out with federal financial assurance rules for industries with great potential to generate hazardous waste.  Hardrock mining is at the top of the list, with incidents like the Mount Polley mine tailings dam collapse making the issue that much more urgent.  The EPA has been sitting on this project for thirty years.

Solar Power on the Rise

Nice concise report on solar from the Union of Concerned Scientists today.  Excellent background piece that helps poke through some of the jargon, e.g. PV, value-of-solar tariffs, net metering.

Sandpiper pipeline

Good summary of the issues before the PUC this week in Inside Climate News.  This will be an uphill battle.  MCEA has particulalry focused on the weakness of PUC "alternative" environmental review in pipeline cases, but, to date, the PUC has been unwilling to do more than tinker around the edges.  Let's see if anything different happens this week.

Mount Polley Tailings Dam Breach

A mine tailings dam designed by the same people who are working on the proposed PolyMet mine in Minnesota collapsed earlier this week, sending millions of gallons of contaminated water into the surrounding lakes and rivers.  Here is some video from the mining.com website:

 

PolyMet proposed to use a much older unlined tailings basin, formerly used by Erie and LTV for taconite tailings, and MCEA's experts have identified the design as "the highest risk for seismic and static failure."  To my knowledge, no one has assessed the technological or economic feasibility of cleaning up the Mount Polly site.  All reports indicate that there is no contingency plan in place (there isn't one at PolyMet either, at least not one that has been disclosed), and it seems highly unlikely that the company put adequate financial assurance aside to cover this kind of catastrophe.


Just a matter of time?

Check out David Shaffer's story in today's Star Tribune on the increasing amount of oil traveling by train through Minnesota, both lighter oil from the Bakken Shale in North Dakota as well as Canadian tar sands.  The potential for an environmental disaster is high, and, as with the proposed new pipelines, it is not clear that adequate safeguards are in place.

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