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... it’s imperative to investigate to the fullest extent what the true effect may or may not be to the water shed

Dear Editor:
I’ve spent the last few months reading Echo letters and thinking about how we got to this point in the debate over Ely’s future.
Not much has changed and those opposed to mining are sticking to their guns; Range population numbers, decreased mining payrolls, that Ely isn’t dying it’s just redefining itself, the population in the Ely area is growing not shrinking, businesses are flourishing, mining kills everything, Mount Polley could happen to the BWCA, foreign ownership, tourism is saving Ely and the proclamations are always written as undisputable fact.
I got a little bit of a nose wrinkle after reading a letter from an attorney, a guy who has spent his life mining for dollars, but cringes at the thought of anyone mining for copper, claim that an underground mine isn’t really an underground mine. He felt it was deceptive not to mention that there will be activity on the surface of the lease as well.
Evidently a reader of tea leaves since the final mine plane is still two years out. What he failed to mention is that 90% of the waste material will stay underground and that the surface infrastructure was deliberately located to keep any discharge water away from the BWCA watershed.
But now I find myself more interested in the “what” and the “why” of all this letter writing and it comes down to a single core issue- sulfuric acid. If it wasn’t for sulfuric acid, the verbal jousting regarding mining would be less intense. After a little research on sulfuric acid, here’s what I discovered.
Without sulfuric acid, a vast portion of our lives would be miserable. The global production of sulfuric acid is one-hundred and eighty million tons per year; the US portion is forty-million tons.
The leading use of sulfuric acid is in the manufacture of phosphate fertilizers (60%) with the second being the blending of numerous other acids. Oil refining is a major consumer of sulfuric acid and is used to manufacture hundreds of products with fuels at the top of the list.
Sulfuric acid is used in the manufacture of steel to remove impurities from the surface of iron slabs in a process called “pickling.” Steel, of course, is made from taconite.
Sulfuric acid is at the heart of Rayon. Rayon is made from cellulous fibers derived from wood in a process, evidently, similar to paper. The fibers are dissolved into solution and injected in combination with sulfuric acid to form strands of rayon that get woven into cloth.
When you turn the key in your car to start the engine, it will be a lead-acid battery that gets you going. And of course, sulfuric acid is the electrolyte that gets the whole show moving down the road.
Commercial potato farms spray their fields with sulfuric acid just before picking the potatoes. Sulfuric acid kills the green tops of the potato plant and keeps “the greens” from clogging up the sophisticated machinery in the potato picker. If you couldn’t pick potatoes on a grand scale with modern machinery, a Happy Meal might cost seven bucks instead of four bucks.
Sulfuric acid is also used in the manufacture of chemotherapy drugs to diminish or destroy various types of cancer. The process is known as alkylation of DNA.
The list goes on; the manufacture of cell phones, to fix color dies to cloth, for plastics and synthetic films, the manufacture of perfumes, paints and disinfectants.
Surprisingly, sulfuric acid isn’t the villainous bad-boy I thought it was and without it, life would be much more difficult.
But these examples are man-made and take place in highly controlled circumstances. What about the incidents of natural occurrence like earthquakes, volcanoes, lava fields that flow from the crust of the earth, and the tectonic plate movements at the deepest depths of our oceans where uncontrolled lava and gases escape into the oceans deepest trenches?
In northwest Wyoming there is place called the valley of fire. This valley has the largest collection of geothermal vents in the world. Hot gases and water are constantly escaping from the earth in the valley of fire and they come from orifices with names like mud-pots, fumaroles, hot springs and geysers. If you’re not familiar with the valley of fire, then maybe you know it by its given name, Yellowstone National Park.
Along with all the hot water and steam, sulfuric acid is also a portion of the emissions, all-be-it in smaller volumes. This is the same sulfuric acid that oxidizes to make acid rock drainage. Interestingly, the continuous addition of natural water like rain, snow-melt and surface water that flows through the park have a profound effect on these acidic outbursts; they dilute the acidity which has a chemical value of Ph2 (a very strong acid) to a point where it seems to be harmless.
I’m assuming that the small amount of sulfuric acid that flows into Yellowstone’s rivers and streams is quickly diluted with little effect on marine life or aquatic ecosystems.
So now I wonder: What effect would water dilution have on sulfuric acid when the potential for very small amounts of the acid might possibly enter one of the largest flowing watersheds in the world, the Lake Superior watershed.
Is it possible that billions of gallons of Ph7 (drinking water) could instantly dilute the acidic strength of an acid and render it undetectable? Maybe a chemist will jump in here and help me out.
I know that acid rock drainage has been flowing into Bob’s Bay on Birch Lake for nearly half a century and yet there seems to have been no postings by the MPCA, EPA or MDNR to ban human encroachment into that part of Birch Lake.
You would think that the water would be toxic half way to Great Slave Lake by now, yet there is nothing from what I could find that says Bob’s Bay was ever closed to human activity. I also wonder if the use of Bob’s Bay as a local example of acid rock discharge is grossly overstated.
Remember; that the anti-mining enviros have put all their eggs into the acid rock drainage basket and if they get proven wrong, they’re done.
We all thought that global warming was an indisputable realism, even our president said the “science was set”. But then a careless click of a mouse at a university in England let the cat out of the bag. The science wasn’t set, the science was rigged. So embarrassing were these email leaks, that the enviros even changed the name of their pet project from “global warming” to “climate change”. Fool me once…………
On more than one occasion, another local attorney continues to mention Kennecott Utah Copper in Salt Lake City and the massive underground bloom of acid rock discharge.
Missing from her pronouncement is that Kennecott Utah Copper is using reverse osmosis technology to remove this worst-ever acid bloom from under the Jordan Valley and turn it into drinking water that is being sold to the local municipalities.
Using these two observations, reverse osmosis technology and a buffer zone of billions of gallons of flowing water, I wonder if extracting minerals from a sulfurized ore body could possibly be done in a safer place than northern Minnesota. It now appears as though fresh water is just as lethal to acids as alkaline dirt is to acids.
In the southwest states, it’s the alkalinity of the earth that keeps the acid rock discharge in check. Since the earth in the southwest United States is mostly an alkaline with a chemical number well above Ph9, any contact with an acid -laced liquid is pretty much neutralized. This may not always be the case, but true enough to provide a cushion of protection from Mother Nature.
Then there is this from an Australian Government Environmental Guideline Statement: “Sulfuric acid will exist as particles or droplets which may dissolve in clouds, fog, rain, dew, or snow, resulting in very dilute acid solutions. In clouds and moist air it will travel along the air currents until it is deposited as wet acid deposition (acid rain, acid fog, etc.). In waterways it readily mixes with the water.”
Did I read that correctly? “In waterways it readily mixes with the water”? So when it’s all said and done, maybe the solution is dilution.
And before you write letters of condemnation, I’m not suggesting that we depend on Mother Nature to do our house cleaning, but it’s nice to know that the buffer zone of water cannot be breached due to the sheer volume of water.
So the proclamation that acid rock drainage will kill off all the fish and lay barren aquatic ecosystems all the way to Lake Superior or the Arctic Ocean seems like more of an environmentalist tactic than an absolute known fact.
A few weeks ago, an expert scientist came to Ely in an attempt to put the official stamp of authority on the fact that acid rock discharge would do just that - kill everything. In juxtaposition with global warming (sorry; climate change): asking members of the scientific community to render an opinion as to what will happen if mining occurs this close to the lakes region of Minnesota, and do so knowing that these experts are diehard environmentalist who belong to the same clubs and gangs as the anti-mining groups in Ely, is nothing short of asking a Jewish chef the best way cook a pork chop.
I’ve come to the conclusion that the problem is not the potential for a rampant and overwhelming discharge of acidic mine runoff destroying everything in its path. Or that Lake Superior is threatened or even Birch Lake for that matter. There’ll be too many firewalls, safety nets and methods of extraction, conversion and neutralization to allow that to happen; both engineered and natural. If there is a weak link in the process it will be in the management of the threat and not the threat itself; the Mount Polley breach being an example of this fear.
The designer of the containment basin at Mount Polley was given incomplete hydrology data as it related to the earth beneath the dam. Imperial Mines ignored warnings of exceeding the capacity of the dam. The British Columbia Division of Mines issued warnings based on ongoing inspections but never used their full power to temporarily shut the mine down. There was culpability to be shared by everyone yet nothing was done.
Eventually the dam had the final word and, immediately, the finger pointing started. Management (!) it all comes down to management.
Six months later, the BC government and the indigenous tribes that were directly affected have signed off on the repairs. Even though the waters below the dam were certified drinkable, Imperial Metals complied with the wishes of the local indigenous tribes and continue to supply drinking water to the towns and villages in the watershed involved.
What I’m hoping my comments will do is put a laser beam on the heart of the mining debate; acid rock discharge.
All of the other issues are important and battle-worthy, but I feel it’s imperative to investigate to the fullest extent what the true effect may or may not be to the water shed in the same locale as a well-run, ultra-modern, mining operation.
I’m not an overly suspicious person, but I’m getting the feeling that the anti-mining gang keep steering the dialog to numerous subjects in an attempt to keep us from stripping to the bone the truth about acid rock discharge and the management of this potential threat in today’s ever-evolving and highly technical mining scenario. It’s time for the truth.
Bob Colombo
Brazil, Former Elyite

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