PolyMet’s Sulfide Mine Plan – Evaluating Adverse Health Effects

Minnesota Family Physicians Request Rule Change to Require Health Impact Assessment of Sulfide Mining

Meeting with state commissioners in fall of 2015 to request a health risk and health impact assessment for the PolyMet sulfide mine, Duluth doctors were told that if they wanted a health impact assessment of sulfide mining they would have to change Minnesota rules for environmental review. That’s just what these concerned doctors set out to do.
View the petition written by the Minnesota Academy of Family Physicians to change Minnesota environmental review rules so that they will require a health risk and health impact assessment for sulfide mining.
In October 2016, in response to the petition from the Minnesota Academy of Family Physicians, the Environmental Quality Board (EQB) held a hearing on whether to change Minnesota rules to require a health risk and health impact assessment of sulfide mining projects in Minnesota as part of environmental review. Doctors, scientists, and other experts testified in support of the Family Physicians’ petition. They emphasized that  significant risks to human health posed by the PolyMet project were not adequately addressed in PolyMet’s Final Environmental Impact Statement.

Read the complete October 2016 EQB board packet with detailed background on the need for a health impact assessment for sulfide mining.

At the EQB hearing, WaterLegacy submitted petitions of 908 citizens requesting a health risk and health impact assessment fur proposed sulfide mines. The EQB has not made its decision, so it is not too late for you to add your voice to help protect human health from sulfide mining.
Please sign our petition today requesting assessment of sulfide mining adverse health impacts.

Read more about the requested rule change in the Duluth News Tribune.

“’So much of our patients’ health is outside of our clinic walls,’ said Dr. Dania Kamp of Moose Lake, president of the 3,100-member Minnesota Academy of Family Physicians, adding that clean water and air and safe food is critical for her patients’ health.”

It’s truly unprecedented for so many medical professionals to take a position like this. … We are jointly expressing our deep concern for the health of our community.”

Read an important article the doctors published in the November/December 2016 issue of Minnesota Medicine, the journal of the Minnesota Medical Association.

“Although the majority of debates about sulfide mining in our state have been framed as “environment versus jobs,” the impact on human health needs to be a part of these discussions.

“Sulfide mining has significant potential for the release of toxic chemicals into the environment. These include a number of chemicals identified by the World Health Organization as being of major public health concern: arsenic, asbestos, cadmium, lead and mercury.



In October 2014, over 150 individual Minnesota doctors, public health professionals and scientists, 3,500 citizens and leading Minnesota health groups – including the Minnesota Public Health Association, the Minnesota Medical Association, Minnesota Citizens Federation Northeast, Healthy Food Action and Food and Water Watch Midwest Region – called for an analysis of adverse health impacts before the PolyMet NorthMet open-pit copper-nickel mine project proceeds to any permitting process.
Read the News Release from Health Professionals and Scientists October 20, 2014.
“On Monday, officials from the Minnesota Public Health Association, Minnesota Medical Association, Minnesota Citizens Federation Northeast, Healthy Food Action and Food and Water Watch Midwest Region called for state and federal regulatory agencies to look at how the mine near Hoyt Lakes might impact human health.
They’ve sent letters to Gov. Mark Dayton asking for the formal health study because of the potential of PolyMet copper mining and processing to increase mercury in fish, contaminate drinking water in the region and expose workers and residents to unhealthy air.
‘A health risk assessment and health impact assessment of sulfide mining is a reasonable step to take to protect the future health of Minnesotans. The MMA urges your support,’ Dr. Donald Jacobs, president of the Minnesota Medical Association, wrote in a recent letter to the governor.
Read Duluth Doctors’ Commentary On PolyMet, the Priority is Health, explaining why the medical community supports assessment of PolyMet health risks.
“PolyMet’s Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement did not give us confidence that human health will be protected. We note that information on mercury release and the potential for mercury bioaccumulation is insufficient.”
Read Why the proposed PolyMet sulfide mine needs a formal health risk assessment, an interview of Kathleen Schuler, member of the Minnesota Public Health Association, by Susan Perry | MinnPost | 10/24/14

What do Minnesota Health Professionals Recommend?


Minnesota Public Health Association

“Our mission is to create a healthier Minnesota through effective public health practice and engaged citizens. We write to request a comprehensive analysis of the health risks and public health impacts of the PolyMet sulfide mine project before any decisions are made about this controversial project.”

READ Minnesota Public Health Association Letter

Minnesota Medical Association

“On behalf of the Minnesota Medical Association, I am writing to offer support for the request that a comprehensive analysis of the health risks and public health impacts of the PolyMet NorthMet Sulfide Mine Project be conducted.  This assessment will assist the state of Minnesota in making an informed decision as to the proposed project, taking into account any potential adverse effects this type of mining may have on the health of Minnesotans.”

READ Minnesota Medical Association Letter

Health Professionals and Scientists Concerned About Health Impacts of PolyMet’s Mine

“We are concerned that the proposed PolyMet copper-nickel mine project could have significant adverse impacts on human health as a result of pollutants released to air, surface water and drinking water. We believe that analysis performed thus far is insufficient to assess important risks to human health and public health impacts of the pollutants that would be released from the PolyMet project.”

Minnesota Academy of Family Physicians – Lake Superior Chapter

“We join our colleagues in the fields of medicine, nursing, and public health as well as our state Health Department to advocate for the health of our region. A health risk assessment and a health impact assessment are the next critical steps in understanding both the short and long term consequences that PolyMet’s NorthMet project may have on our health.”

READ Minnesota Academy of Family Physicians – Lake Superior Chapter’s Letter

Minnesota Academy of Family Physicians – Statewide Organization

“The Minnesota Academy of Family Physicians (MAFP) is the largest medical specialty organization in Minnesota, representing over 3000 family physicians, family medicine residents, and medical students. On April 15, 2015, The House of Delegates unanimously approved the following resolution:
BE IT RESOLVED, that the MAFP request that a Human Health Risk Assessment be performed using the most current scientific modeling methods to evaluate the health effects of the by-­‐products of proposed mining projects, and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that the MAFP supports the subsequent completion of a Human Health Impact Assessment for mining projects so that both health professionals and the public can make informed decisions.”

READ Minnesota Academy of Family Physician – Statewide Organization’s Letter

Minnesota Nurses Association

“The PolyMet NorthMet Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement (SDEIS) contains inadequate analysis of the impacts on public health from the proposal. The co-lead agencies should conduct and include a health impact assessment (HIA) in the Environmental Impact Statement to fully analyze the public health implications of PolyMet’s proposed mine.”

READ Minnesota Nurses Association Comment on PolyMet SDEIS


Doctors & Nurses Commenting on the PolyMet Sulfide Mine SDEIS

“We respectfully request that the PolyMet SDEIS be deemed inadequate due to unresolved concerns and insufficient assessment of health risks of the proposal. We would further request that, in revising the PolyMet SDEIS, a comprehensive Health Risk Assessment be prepared under the guidance of the Minnesota Department of Health.”

READ Doctors & Nurses Comment on PolyMet SDEIS

Commissioner, Minnesota Department of Health

“An HIA could provide recommendations to policy makers to support possible positive health outcomes and to mitigate or prevent possible negative health outcomes to improve the public’s health.”

READ Minnesota Department of Health Comment on PolyMet SDEIS


For further reading on Health Impacts related to PolyMet’s mine plan, read WaterLegacy’s Comments on PolyMet’s SDEIS, particularly Chapter I, Mercury and Methylmercury, and Chapter VIII, Assessment of Health Risks.

Why is Assessment of Human Health Effects Needed?

Download WaterLegacy’s Health Effects Factsheet

1.  Mercury Contamination of Fish & Damage to the Developing Brains of Infants and Children

Mercury contamination of fish damages the developing brain in fetuses, infants and children. People who rely on fish for subsistence are also particularly vulnerable to mercury contamination health hazards.

The PolyMet sulfide mine plan (SDEIS) did not assess health impacts from mercury and methylmercury increases in downstream waters in the Partridge River, Embarrass River and St. Louis River watersheds.

Mercury expert Dr. Brian Branfireun concluded, “Discharges of sulfate and total mercury and hydrologic changes to peatlands at the project site have the potential to significantly increase methylmercury in downstream wetlands and surface waters.”

Dr. Branfireun’s opinion and WaterLegacy’s detailed comments on mercury were sent to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA concluded that mercury modeling for the PolyMet project was insufficient and “further consideration of mercury impacts is needed.”

2.  Pollution of Municipal Drinking Water & Residential Wells

The Minnesota Health Department shares our concerns that PolyMet pollution could impact drinking water: “Groundwater discharge from the Mine Site to the Partridge River could impact the Hoyt Lake[s] drinking water supply (via Colby Lake)” and “The SDEIS does not adequately address possible impacts of groundwater contamination on local domestic wells.”

Lead and manganese from PolyMet’s tailings basin would seep into groundwater upstream of domestic wells. Lead is toxic to the human brain and manganese can reduce IQ and increase ADHD in children.

Arsenic: The PolyMet project would increase arsenic in surface waters, including Colby Lake municipal drinking water for Hoyt Lakes. Arsenic is a Group A human carcinogen and predicted increases would exceed Minnesota’s cancer risk threshold.

3.  Cancer Risks to On-Site PolyMet Workers

The PolyMet SDEIS fails to consider any health impacts to workers who would actually work at the mine or plant. Any SDEIS references to worker health only apply to “off-site workers.”

Cancer: Many pollutants that would be emitted at PolyMet’s plant and mine, such as nickel dust and asbestos-like fibers, are carcinogens;  Health risks to mine workers must be assessed.


What is Needed to Evaluate Health Effects of the PolyMet Project?

Both scientific assessment and community engagement to protect public health from pollution from PolyMet’s sulfide mine plan, including:

  • Assessment of risks from increased mercury in fish on brain development of fetuses, infants and children, especially in downstream populations who eat local fish for subsistence.
  • Assessment of risks from manganese, arsenic, and lead seeping into drinking water on reduced IQ, brain impairment and cancer, particularly affecting infants, children and the elderly.
  • Assessment of risks from air-borne metlas and mineral fiber particulates on cancer and non-cancer disease in mine and plant site workers.
  • Assessment of risks from air pollution from burning more coal to meet mine and plant energy demands on incidence of asthma, lung, and heart symptoms in local communities.
  • Engagement in a Health Impact Assessment to analyze and protect public health.