"I witnessed first-hand how quickly a large lake could become impaired."
A Message from Libby Bent, Duluth for Clean Water Chemist
I wanted to follow-up on the statement I made at the Feb. 12th Duluth City Council meeting to provide some context for why I feel so strongly that Duluth's prosperity hangs in the balance with the PolyMet proposal.
I am a chemist, and I teach at St. Scholastica. In a former life, I worked for DuPont at three different plant sites where I directed research projects for ultimate scale-up to industrial process and product development.
Before my spouse and I moved here to Duluth, we lived near Buffalo, NY, where the tragedy of Love Canal persists. Chemicals that had been disposed of by Hooker Chemical in the 1940s into an “impermeable” clay-lined canal erupted in residents' backyards in the 70s. The superfund cleanup took 21 years and $400 million, and is to this day a black eye on the city of Niagara Falls. Memories of the pain and panic still haunt the neighborhood as questions arise about the effectiveness of the cleanup.
Living near Lake Erie, I witnessed first-hand how quickly a large lake could become impaired by chemicals and runoff, and I worry that could happen here. A senior scientist at UMD’s Large Lakes Observatory and the MPCA both confirm that despite its immense size, Lake Superior is surprisingly vulnerable.
We moved to Duluth four years ago, a city I have loved for as long as I can remember, as it marked the arrival to Lake Superior's North Shore as we drove to spend summers at a cabin built by my grandfather’s family.
As I've learned more about copper sulfide mining and the details of PolyMet's proposal, it's felt like the unfolding of a slow-motion horror story. I had not appreciated how different metal-sulfide ore is from iron-oxide ore, how incredibly rare Minnesota's water complex is, and the sheer volume of Minnesota's fresh water that PolyMet's proposed project would appropriate, until I dug deeply into the issue.
It now seems unbelievable to me that Minnesota would even consider permitting such a destructive endeavor -- a proposal that includes a basin to store wet tailings that is the known-riskiest (and cheapest) "upstream" design, on top of unstable soils, all of which contributed to the Mt. Polley disaster in Canada.
The thing that haunts me the most is realizing how irreversible this decision would be, and how quickly our one-of-a-kind water-rich Arrowhead region could change. It is not far-fetched to suggest that Minnesota could become the nation's top releaser of toxins. People were recently stunned to discover that the remote town of Kotzebue, Alaska is now considered the most toxic community in America. 756 million pounds of toxins reported in the EPA's 2016 Toxic Release Inventory came from the nearby lead and zinc mine, operated by Teck.
Teck also holds the largest sulfide deposit in Minnesota, adjacent to PolyMet. They are quietly watching and waiting, as the PolyMet decision will broadcast Minnesota's priorities.
We need to wait until we can mine these ores without poisoning our air, land, and water, and we are far from that with the PolyMet proposal. As difficult an issue as this is politically, my conclusion is that we cannot escape the reality that our voice is essential, and that we all must speak.
In brighter news, Minnesota could lead the way in advancing technology for e-waste recycling: we're throwing away at least $55 billion in recoverable materials by failing to recycle what is a growing glut of electronic waste. We’ve observed that area leaders like Sen. Simonson and (now former) Councilor Littlewolf are interested in unifying proposals like this -- we need leadership from elected officials to help protect, advance, and heal our region.
Our incredibly rare and valuable fresh water deposit—arguably the largest in the world—depends on us. Thank you for your consideration.