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Copper Mining’s Environmental Challenge

PolyMet MiningProposals by PolyMet Mining for an open pit copper-nickel mine just north of Hoyt Lakes, Minn., are raising environmental concerns, but the company says it will meet its sustainability obligations.

Containment of water from a tailings basin, as well as of snow and rain falling into mining pits and on piles of leftover rock, would comprise a “herculean feat of engineering that has never been successfully done before on this scale,” Minnesota Public Radio reports. And while PolyMet plans to mine for 20 years, water that flows through the site would need to be treated for at least 200 years, and a processing plant site would require treatment for 500 years, according to a draft of the company’s environmental impact statement.

The EPA found one draft of the EIS inadequate, and this Friday a new one is due to be released.

If the proposal can wend its way through the Minnesota regulatory system – including possible lawsuits, and final approval from the governor – it could open up a booming sector in the state, as 11 other companies are waiting to launch similar projects.

Polymet CEO Jon Cherry says his company will “set the standard” for further developments.

Mining is certainly a sector that could do with environmental trailblazers. As Dallas Kachan of Kachan & Co. notes, techniques and equipment developed in the early 1990s are still standard in many mining operations today. But environmental innovations and clean-tech cost reductions can make mining more profitable while also making it better for the planet.

New technology has struggled to find a foothold because few companies are willing to be first movers, but the attitude is changing because of the potential economic benefits.

Companies are also being driven by threatened margins. Production costs for commodities including copper, aluminum and nickel have already reached or exceeded London Metal Exchange prices for some operations, Kachan notes.

Takeaway: Proposed mining operations such as those in Minnesota face a number of drivers – including public opinion, regulatory pressure and economic concerns – driving them to adopt more environmentally friendly practices.

Tamar Wilner is Senior Editor at Environmental Leader PRO.

 

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