Conservation Minnesota

Public Health Impacts of PolyMet Mine Must be Evaluated

KathleenSchulerWebMinnesota is faced with a big decision. Should we go ahead with sulfide mining in Northern Minnesota or not. We already know that the environmental impacts will be significant if this project goes forward, including destruction of moose and lynx habitat, clean-up expenses passed on to Minnesota taxpayers, damage to wild rice waters and production, wetland devastation, increased carbon dioxide emissions and at least 500 years of treating pollution to our waters.

But what about the effects of this project on human health?

So far, no health risk assessment has been done to determine the extent of risks to human health from exposure to mercury, asbestos-like fibers, arsenic, nickel and increased levels of air pollutants.

All of these potential health risks need to be assessed before we go down a path from which we can’t turn back.  Let’s focus on mercury as an especially risky proposition.

The PolyMet project will emit 4.6 pounds of mercury into the air every year and a little mercury goes a long way.  Mercury deposited into Minnesota’s surface waters is transformed by bacteria into methylmercury, the toxic form of the element that bioaccumulates in fish.  Both sulfate pollution and wetlands destruction also increase the likelihood of mercury methylation. The U.S. EPA determined that PolyMet’s modeling for mercury methylation and bioaccumulation was inadequate. The project has potential to increase methymercury in wetlands and surface water downstream of the project, notably in the St. Louis River, which already has high mercury levels.

Virtually every lake in Minnesota is already impaired for mercury and every fish has some level of methylmercury. There are significantly higher levels of mercury concentrations in fish in Northeastern Minnesota, compared with the rest of the state. The PolyMet project, if permitted, would put more mercury into the environment and increase the rate of mercury contamination in fish. This is why we need a full assessment of sulfide mining’s effects on public health.

Fish consumption is the most common way that people are exposed to methylmercury and those who eat fish for subsistence are at higher risk for adverse health effects. Pregnant women are cautioned to choose fish lower in mercury, because prenatal exposure can affect fetal brain development. Mercury is a potent neurotoxin and prenatal exposure can result in adverse impacts on cognition, attention, memory, language and fine motor coordination. Exposure to mercury is also linked to autism, a growing problem that now affects one in 68 school age children. Genetic factors which impair one’s ability to detoxify mercury may play a role in increasing the risk for autism from mercury exposure.

The Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) found that 1 in 10 newborns in the Lake Superior basin are born with levels of mercury in their blood that exceed the EPA reference dose, putting them at greater risk for adverse effects on their brains.

Increases in mercury pollution from PolyMet would only add to the problem.

Minnesota experts agree that providing scientific data to analyze health risks and conducting a health assessment to evaluate public health impacts is the best practice for projects like PolyMet.  It would be ideal if Minnesota could adopt the state of Alaska’s practice to require health effects assessments for all mining projects.  MDH’s Commissioner Dr. Ed Ehlinger, along with doctors, nurses and health professionals across the state are calling for an assessment of health impacts from the PolyMet project.

There is an immediate opportunity to begin assessing PolyMet health impacts by requiring a Health Risk Assessment. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has the authority to require PolyMet to pay for a Health Risk Assessment and carry it out in partnership with the Minnesota Department of Health. Once the health data is provided in this process, the community should be involved in a full and public Health Impact Assessment.

Please urge Governor Dayton to direct the Commissioner of DNR to require a Health Risk Assessment and the Commissioner of Health to conduct a Health Impact Assessment of the proposed PolyMet NorthMet Sulfide Mine project.

About Kathleen Schuler

Kathleen Schuler

Kathleen Schuler manages the Healthy Kids and Families program. With degrees in sociology and public health, Kathleen is perfectly situated to serve as the Co-Director of the Healthy Legacy coalition, which is a statewide network of advocacy organizations working to eliminate toxic chemicals from common consumer products.

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