Minnesota’s First Copper and Nickel Mines?

Crane Lake MinnesotaThe Minnesota Department of Natural Resources will begin public hearings next month to discuss the possible impact of the state’s first proposed copper and nickel.  PolyMet Mining Corp wants to open the mines and processing facilities in what is now some of the state’s best-preserved natural environment in northeast Minnesota.

Is it worth it?

Proponents argue that the development will create 300 to 360 jobs and require an investment of $650 million dollars.  At first this doesn’t sound all that bad.  However the time frame for this economic benefit spans over 20 years.

Northeast Minnesota AutumnOf course jobs beget jobs and investment will enhance other economic benefit.  Polymet estimates it will generate more than $500 million in overall annual economic impact.  These numbers need to be checked and considered.

However, both supporters and opponents agree that the project will forever change the region and require costly investments to protect the environment.  Opponents fear that these risks and costs are underestimated.  So-called “hard rock” mining operations are particularly hazardous and can poison the environment for centuries into the future.

But just look at the short term, the initial 20 years of benefit.  A job is a job and $650 million dollars is a lot of money, but what is the value of a protected and clean environment?

Northeast Minnesota MineA typical Walmart store generates almost twice as many jobs as this mine would produce.  Of course it’s likely the mine would offer jobs with a living wage unlike Walmart and I’m no fan of Walmart either, but I looking at comparisons is important.  At what cost should we accept a project that will produce less than 400 jobs?  And are there resources that are too valuable to sacrifice whatever the benefit?

And $650 million dollars over 20 years hardly sounds like a sum that should excite people.  We have at least one CEO in Minnesota who earned more than that in a year.  We have to ask the same question, at what cost should we accept a project that will attract a $650 million investment?  Land, especially preserved land, cannot be replaced.  Ever.

Minnesota Taconite WorkersFinally, do studies warning of what would essentially be perpetual pollution and poison get the attention they deserve?  There is another controversial mining proposal in northern Wisconsin which has a mountain of environmental impact studies all warning of dire outcomes should that mine proceed.  The gains and costs compare with PolyMet Mining project.  The environmental warnings too often are shrugged off as a nuisance to a “jobs first” policy priority.  Thus it can be political suicide to oppose any project that will produce a job, whatever the cost.

Nevertheless, it is time to question this jobs first approach, even now when jobs otherwise need to be a priority.  In the end, not all jobs are worth the cost.  And all projects are not worth the economic trade off.  What is the long run value of the region if it remains protected versus being changed in the relative short run by mining and industry, for example?

Perhaps copper and nickel mining will prove to be safe and productive.  It might be good for both the future and do little harm to the environment.  Maybe.  I am simply not convinced that debate will ever actually happen and if it does I’m not sure it will matter.  The politics of job creation and economic growth, regardless of its wisdom, will prevail if given the opportunity.

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