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Our Opinion: Sulfide mining is bad for state

Who needs it? That’s what we say about copper-nickel mining in Minnesota.

While it would bring jobs to the Iron Range area, that type of mining is an environmental disaster waiting to happen.

We were willing to keep an open mind about it, but now state regulators are saying a proposed copper-nickel mine in northeast Minnesota would generate water pollution for up to 500 years and require billions of dollars in long-term cleanup costs, according to the Star Tribune.

Unlike traditional iron ore mining, which essentially creates rust when exposed to the elements, copper-nickel, or sulfide mining, creates a caustic stew when exposed to air and water. It kills everything in its path if it leaks into streams or lakes.

And this sulfuric acid is created anyplace where the ore comes in contact with air and water, including the open pit walls, the waste rock piles, tailings, and underground tunnels.

What a mess. That’s why the mine would require what critics say is essentially perpetual water treatment — a first in Minnesota’s long history of mining — to remove pollutants and heavy metals that would otherwise flow into nearby streams and rivers and eventually Lake Superior, according to a draft environmental impact statement.

The analysis, which regulators expect to release for public review in November, was prepared as part of the state’s review of a mining complex proposed by PolyMet Mining Corp., at a site near Hoyt Lakes.

The prospect of centuries of water treatment illustrates the scope of the environmental challenges facing what would be Minnesota’s first copper-nickel mine — and why it has generated intense environmental scrutiny and divided communities on the Iron Range.

PolyMet is the first of many companies lining up to tap into one of the world’s largest copper-nickel deposits. The deposits offer the promise of a new era of mining for Minnesota, but as the Star Tribune reports, one that comes with significant ecological risks for the wildest and most treasured corner of the state.

Even if there are no ecological disasters over the next 500 years, it’s a pretty safe bet that state taxpayers into the distant future will end up paying for the cleanup costs of these mines.

Will PolyMet Mining Co. be around in five centuries? There isn’t a business that has survived that long yet.

The oldest company we could find is Beretta, a gunmaker that launched in 1526 with a contract from the Arsenal of Venice to make 185 arquebus barrels.

The second oldest is Koninklijke Grolsch BV, or Royal Grolsch NV, the the second largest beer brewer in The Netherlands, which launched in 1615.

The London Gazette newspaper was founded in 1655, and Lloyd’s of London insurance in 1688. Sotheby’s auction house was launched in 1744.

Let’s face it. PolyMet Mining probably isn’t going to join their elite ranks.

For its part, PolyMet says long-term water treatment systems are a common part of modern mining operations, as operators comply with mandatory environmental standards. PolyMet expects to meet them as well.

Jobs are definitely needed on the Iron Range right now, but any jobs created by this new type of mining will come at a very steep long-term cost.

Minnesota can live without it.