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The battle for Minnesota’s $1 trillion mining jackpot

Minnesota’s Arrowhead region sits atop a trove of precious metals: four billion tons of raw material like copper and nickel, a haul worth $1 trillion, mining companies say. But local residents and activists are taking a stand against encroaching mining operations, citing the potentially disastrous environmental consequences. Josh Buettner of Iowa Public Television reports.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    We head now to Northern Minnesota, where new technology has renewed a battle over mining a vast mineral deposit.

    From Iowa Public TV's program "Market to Market," Joshua Buettner has the story.

  • JOSH BUETTNER:

    Last fall, demonstrators pressured Minnesota's Saint Louis County Board to publicly acknowledge a proposed copper-nickel sulfide mine would threaten the health of their local watershed.

  • WOMAN:

    It's crazy to clean the river, only to allow it to be polluted again.

  • MAN:

    Mining is less than 1 percent of Minnesota's economy.

  • JOSH BUETTNER:

    Opponents allege newly unearthed sulfur-bearing rock will create acid mine drainage, diluting previous efforts to restore the Saint Louis River, a waterway once crippled by iron ore pollution.

    Since 2008, applications to conduct exploratory drilling have surged in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. And Toronto, Canada-based PolyMet Mining Corporation is first in line to unlock precious metals from the Duluth complex, a vast mineral deposit in the Arrowhead of Minnesota.

    Mining proponents say geologists have known about the formation for over 60 years, but new technology will allow excavation of four billion tons of raw material worth an estimated $1 trillion.

  • LATISHA GIETZEN, PolyMet:

    It's kind of a closed loop system.

  • JOSH BUETTNER:

    Latisha Gietzen, director of public affairs for PolyMet, says new mining techniques and rehabilitated infrastructure will mitigate past damages.

  • LATISHA GIETZEN:

    Because we're using a Legacy site, we will actually be able to clean up some of the issues that are currently going on and bring modern technology to the process.

  • JOSH BUETTNER:

    Additionally, corporate officials say any water released from their proposed NorthMet site will be treated to meet state and federal guidelines.

    But, for some, the mining industry's track record is suspect. A well-established hub for agriculture, forestry and mining exports, the Port of Duluth sits between the contested estuary and Lake Superior. Ships from North America's furthest inland port traditionally transported taconite, a mineral used to make steel, to mills around the Great Lakes Rust Belt and the world.

    The finite resource is mined exclusively in the state's Mesabi Iron Range. In the 1980s, two steel making facilities on the banks of the Saint Louis River became so polluted, they became qualified for EPA's Superfund program.

    With corporate- and taxpayer-funded cleanup continuing today, environmentalists such as Aaron Klemm fear relapse.

  • MAN:

    This river has been designated as one of the top 10 most endangered rivers in the United States.

  • JOSH BUETTNER:

    Though the battle is not over, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources recently gave its final blessing to the NorthMet site.

    Natural PolyMet's Latisha Gietzen says the company will comply with the new mining requirements.

  • LATISHA GIETZEN:

    It has been proven that we can meet water quality standards, both surface and ground water, here at the site. If we can't show that through environmental review and permitting, we won't get a permit to operate.

  • JOSH BUETTNER:

    PolyMet expects to produce 3.6 billion pounds of copper equivalent over 20 years.

    At 32,000 tons of ore per day, that's a fraction of the 100,000 tons of taconite that once rolled through daily. But the bounty on precious metals far outweighs that of low-grade ores. During a decade-long process, PolyMet has jumped through various state and federal hoops described as the most stringent in the world.

    Project backers say copper and nickel, chief components in cell phones, hybrid car batteries, solar panels and wind turbines, are essential building blocks for a high-tech clean-energy future, a future some say the U.S. should secure now, before less climate-minded competitors, like China, are allowed to dominate the market.

    State senator David Tomassoni backs the project and says Minnesota's environmental regulations will protect its citizens.

  • DAVID TOMASSONI, Minnesota State Senator:

    Minnesota's laws are the strictest in the country when it comes to the environment. And, plus, we live here. We live here, we play here, we drink the water, we breathe the air. We want this to be done right, and it will be done right.

  • JOSH BUETTNER:

    PolyMet predicts roughly 1,000 direct and indirect jobs would result from its project, a forecast welcomed with open arms by some in a region sapped by economic slump.

    Adding to layers of complexity, the NorthMet mine sits within territory ceded to the government by Native Americans. In 1854, the Lake Superior Chippewa entered into a treaty, giving the U.S. ownership of their lands in exchange for hunting, fishing and wild rice harvesting rights in perpetuity.

    Wild rice is sacred to area tribes and protected by law.

    Korey Northrup is a member of the Lake Superior Chippewa.

    KOREY NORTHRUP, Font du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa: My main focus is making sure that the wild rice is protected. And we need to understand that, without water, there will be no life, including human life.

    (APPLAUSE)

  • JOSH BUETTNER:

    PolyMet is confident it will meet standards for wild rice.

    State Senator David Tomassoni says there has to be a happy medium between all parties.

  • DAVID TOMASSONI:

    You worry about the water, you worry about the rice, but you also worry about the jobs and the industries.

  • JOSH BUETTNER:

    Even though various national authorities have given the go-ahead, those opposed say corporate profits and tax revenues are the only thing PolyMet will dig up.

  • MAN:

    Protect. Don't pollute.

  • JOSH BUETTNER:

    And the battle over risks and benefits will continue as rivals work their way through the scrutiny of precious metals development in Northern Minnesota.

  • MAN:

    That's what we want for our Saint Louis River.

  • JOSH BUETTNER:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Josh Buettner in Duluth, Minnesota.

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