As news filtered out Thursday that Glencore had established itself as the majority shareholder of PolyMet, which is looking to build Minnesota’s first-ever copper-nickel mine near Hoyt Lakes, devastating headlines about the Swiss-based company were also breaking.
At least 43 “illegal miners” died at a Kamoto Copper Company mine, operated by Glencore's subsidiary Katanga, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Glencore later said the incidents were not linked to the official “operations and activities” of the mine.
While clandestine miners, who access sites without approval or permits, are a common occurrence in Congo and across Africa according to Reuters, the incident raises several questions in light of Glencore’s new role on the Iron Range.
With questions already swirling around the company’s environmental and labor record, Thursdays’ death toll did little to temper the opposition to the mining giant and the project. But it also proves a point supporters of PolyMet have pushed on in recent years, when Glencore’s involvement was significantly lower key.
Mining for metals like copper and nickel, as miners were at KCC in Congo, is better done under the strict regulatory oversight in the United States and Minnesota, for both the environment and the safety of its workers.
Iron ore mines in Minnesota should be case in point. Regulations guiding tailings pits are designed to avoid the devastating collapse at Vale mine in Brazil earlier this year. Since the controversy over Reserve Mining dumping waste into Lake Superior ended in the 1980s, iron mining has held a relatively low profile on environmental issues related to their operations.
On the labor side, St. Louis County mines had their safest year on record, according to a report from the county mine inspector, with zero fatalities. Nationwide, metal and nonmetal fatalities from 2008-2018 averaged 19 per year, according to Mine Safety and Health Administration section of the U.S. Department of Labor.
One death is too many, but the county, state and federal governments have concrete reporting processes, investigations and procedures to protect workers’ health and lives.
It would be unimaginable for what happened in the Congo to happen in Minnesota, where thousands of people annually enter a facility like United Taconite and simply begin mining on their own. That is in large part to the regulations enforced and respected by the companies, and their own security efforts.
Glencore or any other foreign or domestic company will have to meet those same standards if they expect to operate in Minnesota. It will be up to the workers, citizens, lawmakers and yes, even the media to hold them accountable.
That’s why construction of PolyMet should move forward: The world is going to need the minerals under our soil to help the country make its way into more efficient green energy efforts, while also supporting the growing technological needs of the industries and society.
Global mining companies will go where they need to get those minerals. So why not do it in the United States and Minnesota, where they will be held to the highest standard of operation by the government and the fierce watchdogs keeping their eye on things?