Give Me a Good Balance Sheet

Lughnasa                                    Waning Harvest Moon

Back from a day of hard rock mining,  a lot of rock and little roll.  One of the criticisms of the environmental movement focuses on its obsession with chemistry, geology, climatology and animal living conditions to the exclusion of human concerns.   The session today on Polymet Mining’s proposal to put a copper mine near Minnesota’s Iron Range proved the point, though it would also have applied to the industry representatives who were there as well.

This was a day of law, FeS2 and FeOS2.  A cascade of copper, nickel, palladium and platinum tinkled onto the audience.  This fight, and it is a fight, has clear sides and the sides have been at it long enough that they know each other by first names and recall each others data from meetings in the past.

Not the cozy day, though, that might seem natural in a Minnesota nice crowd like the one gathered at the Northstar Ballroom in the St. Paul Campus Student Center.

The information presented today may have been old news to many in the room, but it was new to me.  This is a complex issue for several reasons, the chemical reactions that lead to sulfuric acid in the groundwater being the cause celebre, but far from the only one.  There is, too, the tendency of mining companies to exhaust a resource, close the mine and go bankrupt after loading the assets onto another corporate entity.  The tax payers get stuck with the clean up bill.

In addition the cyclical nature of metal prices accentuates the boom and bust nature of resource frontiers, giving the employment situation a roller coaster ride of high times segueing into desperation.

In the end the information that impressed me the most came from a Montana economist named Thomas Powers.  He made the point first about benefits always being trotted out and high-fived while the costs associated with mining get set off to the side.  I came away convinced that if we could get a decent balance sheet for the life cycle of the Polymet plant, public costs and public benefits, that we would have a compelling argument for stopping this mine.

Just another day in the education of a neophyte environmentalist.  But a good one.

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