Why the Proposed PolyMet Sulfide Mine Needs a Formal Health Risk Assessment

By Perry, Susan | MinnPost.com, October 24, 2014 | Go to article overview

Why the Proposed PolyMet Sulfide Mine Needs a Formal Health Risk Assessment


Perry, Susan, MinnPost.com


A growing number of Minnesota's health professionals and scientists are publicly expressing their concern about the potential health impacts of the proposed PolyMet sulfide mine near Hoyt Lakes.

Earlier this week, several health-related groups, including the Minnesota Public Health Association and the Minnesota Medical Association, joined others in asking Gov. Mark Dayton to require the Minnesota Department of Health to conduct a formal health risk assessment of the controversial mine project.

The health experts are particularly concerned about how the project will increase mercury in fish, contaminate drinking water with toxins such as lead and arsenic, and release pollutants -- including nickel dust and asbestos-like mineral fibers -- into the air.

One of the experts who signed the latest letter to the governor is Kathleen Schuler, a member of the Minnesota Public Health Association's Policy and Advocacy Committee and director of the Healthy Kids and Families program at Conservation Minnesota. Earlier this week, MinnPost spoke with Schuler about her health concerns related to the PolyMet mine project. An edited version of that interview follows.

MinnPost: You've called the proposed PolyMet mine project a public health issue. Why?

Kathleen Schuler: There are two aspects to it -- the increased effects on the general population and also the increased effects on workers who take part in this industry. As far as the general population is concerned, there's increased potential for mercury pollution, increased potential for water pollution and an increased risk of air pollution.

MP: What is the concern with mercury?

KS: There's a potential for mercury methylation. When mercury gets into the environment and is acted on by bacteria it can turn into methylmercury, which is a form of mercury that can build up in the food chain. Ultimately, it ends up in the fish, and we eat the fish.

The potential for methylation has not been fully assessed in [the PolyMet mine] project. There are already high levels [of methylmercury] in the St. Louis River and other water bodies in northern Minnesota. And there are already high levels of mercury in fish in northern Minnesota. [The Minnesota Department of Health] does several bio-monitoring projects, and one in particular looked at mercury in newborns. They found that one in 10 infants born in the Lake Superior region has blood levels of mercury that are higher than the [Environmental Protection Agency] safety standard.

MP: Should people in other regions of the state be concerned?

KS: Yes. Mercury is a global pollutant, so it can be deposited thousands of miles from where it's emitted. It's more of a concern in northern Minnesota because we have higher exposure among infants in that area of the state, [but] it can affect everyone.

MP: What is the current source of the mercury that is getting into those infants' bodies?

KS: The main source is fish consumption.

MP: And where is the mercury coming from that's getting into the fish?

KS: The biggest source of mercury in our environment is coal- burning [power plants and other facilities]. With PolyMet, there will be an increase in fossil fuel use that would not only increase mercury but would increase air pollution. There's a link between air pollution and cardiovascular disease and respiratory problems. And then there's the possibility that arsenic, magnesium and lead could get into the water and pollute wells.

MP: What is the health concern regarding those three metals?

KS: They're neurotoxins, and arsenic is linked to cancer. People in the region will be exposed [to these and other toxins] both through air, through water and through fish consumption, so there's multiple effects that need to be examined. …

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