PolyMet: The Debate About the Dam

Updated: November 27, 2019 06:32 PM

On his days off from his job as a mine pit supervisor, Tony Licari spends as much time as he can, outdoors. "We get done, we like to hunt and we like to fish. We take care of our properties."


At the edge of his land in Embarrass, you can see the rise of the old LTV tailings dam. It looks like a large, snow-dusted staircase or birthday cake. The dam and basin hold 800 million tons of tailings from decades of mining. "We got a dike sitting there, and in 60 years, it hasn't moved at all," Licari said.

Down a nearby road, another man has that same view of the dam. But Dan Ehman has a different view point. "No, I never really thought it gave me any comfort that it didn't break yet," he said. "If they start a new phase, it will put added stress on it. Who knows."

Environmental groups, like WaterLegacy, are worried too. Especially after what happened in Brazil. 10 months ago, the Brumadinho dam failed, sending waste rock from an iron ore mine surging down a hillside. Nearly 300 people died. It was built using an upstream design. Similar in type, experts said, to the one PolyMet plans on using.

And that's partially why the dam safety permits have been put on hold by the Minnesota Court of Appeals. The court held oral arguments last month in St. Paul. Paula Maccabbee, counsel for WaterLegacy, said in court, "PolyMet's plan for reactive waste creates an avoidable threat to downstream communities and natural resources."

Judge Edward McLeary brought up Brazil. "The Brazilian disaster, happened in part, because safety auditors didn't do their jobs. Even though they were aware of the problem. What's the plan here?" he asked PolyMet's lawyer.

We went to PolyMet to learn more. Christie Kearney, the environmental site director, specializes in this very topic. "We have what we call a modified upstream construction," she said.

In an upstream design, each new level of the dam is built inwards towards the tailings basin.  PolyMet plans on adding additional support at the toe of the dam, in the form of a buttress made out of taconite waste rock. It will also have a more gradual slope. Kearney says that equals more stability. "The flatter the slope is, the more stable it's going to be," she said.

PolyMet said this design was considered the least environmentally impactful alternative, since the other designs would have affected more wetlands. And it utilizes an existing site. "It's the largest recycling project in Minnesota," Kearney said.

The basin looks like a wetland now. The top looks like a prairie. It all seems unlike the scenario in Brazil. According to the Wall Street Journal, Brazil has now banned the upstream dam method. The Deputy Commissioner of the Minnesota DNR shared her perspective. "They took that action, in response to a very catastrophic dam failure. We've not seen anything like that in Minnesota," Barb Naramore told us over the phone.

The upstream design can be found across mining country. The DNR is monitoring all of the tailings basins and dams at the six taconite facilities. According to the DNR, five of the six facilities use the upstream design on their properties.

"Certainly, in recent years, we have not had any significant issues. We have had things reported to us by companies, and identified during the course of our own inspections. All have been addressed, and have not resulted in anything we would call a major failure or significant event," Naramore added.

The company said they have studied a worst-case scenario, like a 35 inch rain event. "We have the capacity to hold that and any wave run-up that happens as a result," Kearney said.

PolyMet and the DNR shared what they say are key differences between Brumadinho and PolyMet.

1) Brumadinho was built on the side of a mountain, above a community. PolyMet's proposed location is flat, away from any community.

2) Brumadinho was holding back an entire river valley. PolyMets has virtually no water inflow.

3) Brumadinho had higher slopes. PolyMet's are more gradual.

Also, Kearney said at Brumadinho, they didn't look at if the tailings basin completely liquefied, which is what happened. "We have looked at that. We assume everything turns to water. And where does it go."

Kearney said it would not go over the top of the dam. They've also planned an overflow channel, where water could go, in a controlled release. 

Meanwhile, they and the DNR are keeping an eye on the LTV basin. "We have over 200 locations we are monitoring currently," Kearney said. "When we are in full operation, we will have more than 400."

The company said there will be independent reviewers hired by the DNR. And there will be additional reviewers hired by PolyMet.

They're also developing a contingency plan to be used if there was a failure. A plan they'll share with people like Tony Licari. He said he isn't worried about that. "I have no problem with what they're doing," he said. 

He sees a bright future ahead with PolyMet, with more than 350 direct jobs and proposed economic impact of $515 million dollars a year.

"Iron Range is mining country. It's beautiful up here. You can't compare this to any other industrial area," he said.

But others, like his neighbor Dan, aren't so sure. "It sounds like it's a gamble," he said.

For now, they all wait for the courts. A decision on the dam safety permits and the permit to mine are expected in early 2020.

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