Conservation Minnesota

Politics of Mining. Who should pay for the cost of cleanup?

tumafeature“They wanted that ore real bad” ~ Frank Hrvatin, 1924* In 1924 Frank Hrvatin had a front row seat to Minnesota’s largest mining disaster. The 14-year-old was one of the few miners fortunate enough to escaped the Milford Mine when a nearby lake collapsed into the underground mining shafts killing 41 of his fellow miners including his father. Though the official report after the mining disaster did not place blame on the mining operators, later investigations put into question the wisdom of building an underground mine below the lake. Many of the experienced miners quit the mine prior to its collapse because they recognized how dangerous it was as water continued to seep into the shaft on a regular basis prior to the collapse. Most miners feared testifying at the official inquest due to intimidation by the mining operators.

Like most mining operations, George H. Crosby washed his hands of responsibility and little was paid to the widows, orphans and other victims of the mining collapse. Despite the obvious negligence of hastily building a mine right under a lake to quickly get after a bed of manganese ore to feed the burgeoning stainless steel industry, the owners quickly shifted the liability to others. In this case, mostly the miners’ families who lost loved ones in the mine collapse.

Some 90 years later, Minnesota is hearing the call for the quick development of the next generation of nonferrous mining. Iron Range DFLers and several statewide Republican candidates are calling for quick approval of this new generation of mining, despite significant concerns around water contamination and ongoing pollution for centuries following the closure of these proposed mines. MinnPost reported endorsed Republican U.S. Senate candidate Mike McFadden recently tweeted “Let’s get this done!” referring to the PolyMet Mining project near Hoyt Lakes, and Republican gubernatorial candidate Jeff Johnson said he is ardently in favor of using the state’s natural resources to create jobs.

Those eager to make political points on developing the next generation of dangerous sulfide mining should take a lesson from the past. Just as in the Milford Mine disaster, those involved in mining investments learn quickly how to shift the liability to others. In particular our taxpayer protecting Republican friends should be very cautious when they find out that most of those costs have been shifted to the taxpayers in recent similar mining operations.

For all their talk about guarding the wallets of taxpayers, they should learn lessons from the following recent mining examples:

Summitville Gold Mine, Colorado – The company filed for bankruptcy, leaving cleanup costs to the public. Costs are expected to be about $235 million and take at least 100 years.

Zortman Landusky Mine, Montana – In 1998, the company abandoned the site and filed for bankruptcy. After several lawsuits against the mining company and its creditors following the company’s bankruptcy, Montana’s taxpayers are still liable for anywhere from $8 million to $90 million.

Gilt Edge Mine, South Dakota – The parent company, Dakota Mining, went bankrupt and abandoned the mine in 1999 with only a $6 million bond in place, an amount insufficient to cover water treatment for even a single year. In 2000, South Dakota requested the site be designated a Superfund site for long-term cleanup, leaving the burden of reclamation costs on taxpayers.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the cost of mine cleanup for sites listed as national priorities is $20 billion. The most significant cost associated with this cleanup is long-term water treatment and management. Therefore, before politicians in the land of 10,000 lakes get too giddy about creating a few hundred jobs that may last only a couple decades, they should look at the centuries of ongoing water treatment costs that the taxpayers of Minnesota could be left with when these mines close. So when you hear the politicians tell you how we should rush in to create these few jobs ask the tough question about how are they going to guarantee taxpayers are not left holding potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in cleanup costs.

About John Tuma

John Tuma
John is a former state legislator and litigation attorney. He served in the Minnesota House of Representatives for eight years from the Northfield area, beginning in 1994. Elected as a Republican, John was known for his independent thinking and ability to work across party lines. He is well-known in Minnesota state government circles.
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