Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton returned from touring a South Dakota mine Tuesday determined to make sure any northeastern Minnesota copper-nickel mine owner pays for clean-up costs before the mine opens.
He called the Gilt Edge gold and silver mine near Lead in the Black Hills “a textbook example of how not to do it.” The mine closed in 1999 when its owner went bankrupt, leaving just $6 million for clean-up costs that now easily have topped $105 million, mostly funded by the country’s taxpayers.
The governor said he cannot allow PolyMet Mining to begin operation before he is convinced funds are in hand to remove pollution from the PolyMet site after what the company thinks will be at least 20 years of mining.
“We want to make sure they have it locked away,” Dayton said of the money.
PolyMet officials say they will follow Minnesota law that requires that money to be in place before a permit is issued.
However, mine opponents say clean-up could take more than a 100 years and there is no way to predict how much money is needed.
The governor responded: “We have to rely on what we know now.”
Tuesday’s trip came as he and key aides prepare to decide whether to give the PolyMet copper and nickel mine in northeastern Minnesota the go-head to begin operations.
Dayton, Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr and Pollution Control Commissioner John Linc Stine said the South Dakota mine site is very different from where the proposed PolyMet mine will be, so geology and water condition information they learned Tuesday will not apply in Minnesota.
Also, when Gilt Edge’s last owners bought the mine in 1986, today’s environmental regulations did not exist.
“There really weren’t any regulations in place,” Landwehr said. “They left this whole legacy of pollution in place.”
PolyMet Mining produced an information sheet after Dayton met with reporters Tuesday night that showed some of the differences, including the fact that Gilt Edge mining began in 1876, during the height of the Black Hills gold rush, and pollution began then.
PolyMet officials pointed out that technology is more efficient at cleaning up water than when Gilt Edge was in business.
Dayton’s key environmental aides will release a final environmental impact statement later this month, but before deciding whether to go ahead and consider issuing PolyMet permits they must consider what likely will be thousands of public comments on the document.
If they decide to proceed, state officials must issue more than 20 permits, four significant ones, before PolyMet can begin mining.
The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency would issue permits requiring air and water pollution requirements be satisfied. The Department of Natural Resources would issue a permit for a high-hazard dam and an overall mining permit.
However, that could be a long ways away, if it happens at all. Landwehr said a final mining permit could not be expected before late 2016.
Whatever the Dayton administration decides, it is bound to end up on court, where judges may make the final determination about whether PolyMet can open the mine.
Dayton said the big question he returned with on Tuesday would go to his commissioners who have the most responsibility in issuing permits: “I want to ask them if they are absolutely convinced we should proceed.”
Among the major questions are about water pollution, including the chance of harming wild rice crops that are important to American Indians.
If Dayton opts to reject permits, he said that he also would be turning down the chance for 1,000 Iron Range jobs to prepare the mine.
PolyMet opponents suggested Gilt Edge to Dayton as an example of what can go wrong with mines.
On Friday, he plans to tour what is called an example of a well-run operation when he visits Eagle Mine in Michigan, 10 miles from Lake Superior. The mine, open little more than a year, produces copper and nickel, like proposed for PolyMet, but it is an underground operation while PolyMet would be an open-pit mine.
Dayton took key aides who will be involved in the mine permit decision on his South Dakota trip and will again when he flies to Michigan.
The Gilt Edge-area mining began in the South Dakota gold rush of 1876, with miners dumping toxic tailings into local waterways. Canadian-based Brohm Mining Co. took over the Gilt Edge mine in 1986, when many nearby streams already were polluted with heavy metals.
From 1992 to 1999, the mine produced 102,274 ounces of gold and 172,504 ounces of silver. Brohm entered bankruptcy in 1999, leaving slightly more than $6 million to clean up nearby water.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency, with some state support, is treating up to 300 gallons of water per minute to remove toxins. Clean-up costs top $100 million and EPA officials say they do not know how long they will need to be on site.
PolyMet opponents point to Gilt Edge as an example of what could happen at PolyMet: lots more clean-up costs than the company funds. South Dakota press reports indicate no one knew when Gilt Edge was operating the extent of clean-up needs.