Put clean-up first

Published 2:08 pm Monday, March 14, 2011

Daily Herald Editorial

Twin Cities environmental groups were making noise last week about pollution leaking from an abandoned mine near Ely. The leaks from the old iron ore pit have significance beyond immediate pollution: They are emblematic of the need for very aggressive limits on future mining in environmentally fragile areas.

Minnesota’s Iron Range is not merely the home of historic mining operations. It is also the target of proposed new mines and a likely battleground over the issue of economics vs. environment. Mining firms have proposed a pair of new excavations in the Ely and Babbitt areas, projects which would provide many jobs and a great deal of taxable income for the state. But it has become clear over the years that it is almost impossible to extract minerals from the earth without also unleashing a stream of pollution as rain and surface waters leach dangerous chemicals from the tailings. The newest mines would be perched adjacent to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and would present a significant risk to that pristine area.

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It may be possible to have mining and a health environment, too. But only if regulators are willing to put their foot down and insist that companies put money in a clean-up fund before they begin operation. Otherwise, there’s a risk that the mines might be long closed (and the investors long gone) once pollution becomes apparent.

There’s a need for mining. We need the metals and the jobs. But there’s also a real need to protect the environment, and the best way to do that is to ensure, financially, that miners will be responsible for clean-up via a fund created at a project’s beginning.