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Once More With Feeling; Area Residents Weigh in on Mile Post 7

Based on the DNR’s Record of Decision dated March 4th of this year, Northshore Mining has been given a green light to proceed with the expansion, or extension, of the Mile Post 7 tailings pond. There are, however, questions that remain unanswered or at least need to be clarified for the public. For exam­ple, what is the distinction between a mine expansion versus an exten­sion? In last week’s article, I re­ported that according to the DNR, available tailings storage at Mile Post 7 will not be increased from what it was originally designed to contain. I apparently confused “dam extensions’ with dam height. I apologize for this mistake and would appreciate clarifying infor­mation from folks at North Shore Mining. The numbers given in the article refer to elevation above mean sea level, not height added to any of the MP 7 dams. Company officials are invited to clarify plans for Mile Post 7 or correct me on any inaccuracies. Retractions and corrections will be printed for the record. The point of these articles is to encourage transparency and offer balanced reporting, hearing from both the citizenry and the company on something impactful to both the citizenry and the com­pany.

Cleveland-Cliffs Environmental Stewardship Statement reads in part, “Cleveland-Cliffs takes great pride in our environmental man­agement program and efforts. Our business is highly regulated and we understand the importance of maintaining compliance and going beyond what is expected to be a good corporate citizen. Our envi­ronmental policy is based on an un­derstanding that we have a respon­sibility to preserve the environment for future generations.” Interested readers can get more information about Cliff’s environmental man­agement efforts by checking out their Sustainability Report 2023 at clevelandcliffs.com.

Cleveland-Cliffs has actively worked to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) over the last three years. The company has set a goal of reducing GHG by 25% by 2030 with the overall plan of moving “toward near zero GHG emissions by 2050 in alignment with the Paris Climate Agree­ment”. Thankfully, leadership at Cleveland-Cliffs does not listen to climate deniers like Senator Ron Johnson (R-Wisc), who would chastise them for even trying to re­verse the impacts of industrializa­tion on the climate. It’s encourag­ing to know that there are people in industry who don’t believe that climate change is a hoax. Maybe we will all be able to breathe a little easier this summer.

While tailings dams do have an impact on air quality, the focus of concern is usually on the effect that tailings dams have on water­sheds and the flora, fauna, people and infrastructure that exist near them. The point of this series of articles is to try to get answers to those kinds of questions. In a re­port from 2015 by the National Park Service entitled Long-Range Risk of Tailings Dam Failure, au­thor David M. Chambers points out that (as of 2015) there were over 3,500 tailings dams located around the world. What is the failure rate among those dams? According to the Chambers article, the “Interna­tional Commission on Large Dams (ICOLD) convened several studies to investigate tailings dam failures. In the 10 years since the ICOLD 2001 report, the failure rate of tail­ings dams has remained at rough­ly one failure every eight months, or about three failures every two years”. The ICOLD report goes on to report that China and Canada are two countries with the worst safe­ty records. “Canada has had seven accidents since 2011, while China has had eight. Chile registered five separate tailings dam failures in 2010, according to the report, while the U.S. saw five tailings dam acci­dents over the past decade”.

While there are a number of caus­es of tailings dam failure, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agen­cy lists overtopping as a prima­ry concern. “Overtopping occurs when sufficient freeboard (the distance between the top of a dam and the impounded water level) is not maintained and the water level behind the dam rises due to heavy rainfall, rapid snowmelt, flooding or operator error”. Clearly, each of the causes of overtopping can be monitored. That being the case, it would be appropriate for Cliffs / Northshore Mining to be very clear with the public on how exactly it will monitor Mile Post 7, not only on a regular basis, but over the long term as well.

Residents of the area surrounding Silver Bay were asked to share their thoughts and concerns about the expansion of the Mile Post 7 tailings dam. While their collec­tive responses do not equate with a scientifically designed survey, they do represent the perspectives of some folks who live in proximity to Mile Post 7. Some respondents asked that their names not be used. I chose to omit the names of all re­sponders in the interest of treating everyone in a uniform manner.

One Beaver Bay resident said, “I wish they would have a meeting for the people most affected”. A resi­dent of Silver Bay stated, “I would like to know what would happen if it fails, what is the mining compa­ny prepared to do, are they liable for the damage”? Another Silver Bay resident responded by say­ing, “I need to know more about it before commenting”. A fourth area resident said, “I think it’s im­portant to have a public meeting in Beaver Bay or Silver Bay. We need to hear the facts from Northshore Mining, MPCA and environmental experts; and have time for citizen response”.

An official from the area made these comments. “I am in favor of the expansion for the following reasons.

What are the alternatives? Nearly everyone from Beaver Bay or Sil­ver Bay has worked at the plant at some point in their lives. It’s still the largest and highest paying employer in both cities. Closing would be a financial disaster for many. The tourist industry keeps expanding but many of those jobs are lower paying and seasonal. Cleveland Cliffs does control an­other processing plant inland so they could return much of their pro­cessing to that plant leaving the folks working here with not too many options.

Build higher damns. Currently there are three dams containing the tailings produced over the last 40+ years of processing. One of them is over a mile long. To continue processing here without the ex­pansion will mean building these dams higher. The hydraulic forces on dams go up considerably as the height is increased. It seems much safer to expand out rather than up. These dams are carefully mon­itored by a sizable crew of very qualified personnel and hundreds of sensors. If the plant were to stop using Mile Post 7, would the quali­ty of monitoring stay the same?

A couple years ago Cleveland Cliffs contracted Barr Engineering to conduct a study on worst case scenarios if a dam were to fail. A large group of Emergency re­sponse people were gathered to review the study and settle on a response action plan. I was invited to attend. The plan was incredibly thorough, down to the time, wa­ter/slurry heights and velocities. It identified all landowners affect­ed and who and when evacuation would need to take place. The good news for some citizens is that none of their places would be immedi­ately affected by a dam failure. Of course, it would create a huge mess and affect the lake for who knows how long. I’m in favor of doing whatever makes that scenario less likely to ever happen. Expansion seems to me to be the best way of ensuring that by keeping it ac­tive, well monitored and keeping damn heights lower. As part of the emergency action plan meeting, we were given a bus tour of Mile Post 7. The expansion area was obvious and appeared very reasonable to me. Given the incredible amount of Lake County currently owned by the government and large environ­mental non-profits (Nature Conser­vancy, etc.) I feel sacrificing a few acres to industry is not too much to ask.”

Tailings dam failure happens be­cause someone missed something. Perhaps instruments like piezome­ters and other safeguards that mea­sure for liquefaction, seismic ac­tivity or dam stability fail. Perhaps, given the increasing frequency of severe weather events, overtopping happens without someone noticing before it’s a problem. Certainly, North Shore Mining isn’t playing fast and loose on safety with regard to Mile Post 7 but the fact is that accidents do happen. The pipeline that ruptured last month at Silver Bay, dumping 140,000 gallons of “process water” into Lake Superi­or, is a case in point.

From a historical standpoint, cor­porate transparency with regard to the quality control of products and the impact that production practices have on the environment, has not always been sufficient. The current situation at Boeing comes to mind. While Cleveland-Cliff’s environ­ment statements indicate they are paying close attention to environ­mental impacts, public awareness and input is also necessary. An ar­ticle in MINNPOST, (an indepen­dent journalistic nonprofit publica­tion), published in August of 2020 and entitled Responsible Mining? Minnesota Has A Long Way To Go, spoke to this need for public scruti­ny. Authors Janet Keough and Bill Hansen address the practices of the PolyMet / Glencore copper-nick­el mine. The authors promote the use of “independent certification systems” when it comes to moni­toring tailings sites. They go on to assert that the PolyMet / Glencore site “would fail any science-based independent certification system”. While that may or may not be the case with regard to PolyMet, the au­thors bring up an important point. They write, “the goal of tailings management must be zero harm to people and the environment; safe­ty – not cost – must be the deter­mining factor in design”. While the executives at Boeing may want to argue that point, it appears that the rest of us, including the folks who run Northshore Mining, would be well served by having more open discussion in the hope that both common understanding and com­mon ground can be reached regard­ing what’s happening at Mile Post 7.

Rick Evans
Rick Evans
My wife, Marsha Kinzer (a proud DEHS Greyhound, class of ‘77) introduced me to the North Shore on vacation in 2012. It became our regular escape when the stress of our careers in education became overwhelming, and it didn’t take me long to fall in love with the breathtaking scenery, the nice people, and “salad” containing Jell-o and marshmallows. So you can either blame or thank my loving wife for my being here, because when we needed to choose a retirement hometown, Marsha advocated hard for her beloved Duluth, and here we are, six months later. Yes, this will be my first northern Minnesota winter. Yes, I welcome thoughts and prayers. Government, public policy, and social justice weighed heavily in the curriculums I taught at the high school level over a thirty-eight year career. In addition, we were a laboratory school focused on critical thinking in conjunction with technical and scientific writing. So when I found myself adrift on the great ocean of retirement and spied a raft, I jumped at the chance to take up what I’d left behind…minus the bad teachers’ lounge coffee. My position at the NSJ allows me to combine my passions for government and writing, and it’s helping me to feel less out of touch in new surroundings. When I’m not being “Cubby” (Marsha’s favorite new nickname for this green reporter) I enjoy pointing at eagles and saying, “Look, honey. There’s an eagle.” I’ve had an active side hustle as a professional musician for almost as many years as Charlie Parr. As a guitarist/singer/songwriter, I graced the stages of clubs and festivals around southern Wisconsin, including an appearance on A Prairie Home Companion. Should I even mention A Prairie Home Companion, or am I the only one here old enough to remember what that is? Look! An eagle!
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