Mining projects on Range can be safe, profitable – by Rolf Westgard (St. Cloud Times – August 17, 2013)

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This is the opinion of Rolf Westgard, a professional member of the Geological Society of America. He teaches classes on energy subjects for the University of Minnesota Lifelong Learning program.

In 2011, we humans extracted and burned some 15 billion tons of coal, oil and natural gas, or 4,000 pounds for everyone on Earth. That put more than 30 billion tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Nature passed over Minnesota on its way to states such as North Dakota and Texas where it placed the sedimentary basins in which fossil fuels such as oil formed. Minnesota was not totally forgotten, and we got minerals such as iron ore and the non-ferrous group of copper, nickel, cobalt, palladium, platinum, etc. We’ve dug up most of the iron. But nestled in a wide band, meandering along the Archean granite of the Iron Range, is a world-class deposit of non-ferrous metals worth billions of dollars and thousands of jobs.

Total world annual production of those metals is just 30 pounds or so per person, and their demand and price is rising. Manufacturing wind turbines, solar panels, electric vehicles, catalytic converters and smart grid power lines requires copper, nickel, cobalt, palladium and platinum. 

Our own ‘gold mine’

Minnesota owns more than 6,000 acres of land in the region, and it stands to collect $2.5 billion in royalties in the coming decades if mining proceeds. This state property is known as “school trust lands.” Under the Minnesota Constitution, income from such lands is earmarked for the Permanent School Fund, which contributes about $60 per pupil to every school district. An analysis by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources projected that the school fund, with assets of $720 million, could more than triple in size with copper royalties during the next 25 to 30 years.

Two mining ventures have long-term federal and state government leases to mine those metals. The largest venture is the open pit NorthMet Project by PolyMet Corporation of Canada with its partner, the Swiss metals company Glencore. This project expects annual metal production of 38,800 tons of copper, 9,000 tons of nickel, 400 tons of cobalt, 22,200 ounces of platinum, 87,100 ounces of palladium and 13,800 ounces of gold.

The other mine is an underground project, a partnership of Duluth Metals of Canada, Twin Metals Minnesota LLC and Chile’s Antofagasta, the world’s largest copper producer.

‘Acid rock drainage’

Environmentalists are lined up in opposition to these projects, viewing them as a serious threat to water quality. The issue is these ores are reactive sulfide minerals. When mined, the sulfur comes in contact with water and oxygen, forming sulfuric acid. This acid can then dissolve and carry away toxic elements, polluting water supplies in a process known as acid rock drainage.

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