Who's investing in copper-nickel mining on the Range?

NEW ORLEANS -- As the autumn sun starts to peek over the horizon, a blazing mix of orange, yellow and red, Pete Gerica starts up his fishing boat as he's done nearly every morning for decades. Gerica's fishing roots run as deep as the water off the Louisiana coast. A good catch is his southern comfort.

"I've been actually on this water here for the better part of 55 years," Gerica says about the Bayou Sauvage, which is located just east of New Orleans. "It's kind of like a gambler. You get an adrenaline rush when you make good."

Gerica is a 4th generation shrimper, an industry as important to the Gulf Coast as oil production in the nearby Gulf of Mexico. He brought KARE 11 trawling in the bayou, but the catch isn't what it used to be.

"That's nowhere near enough and nowhere near the right size," Gerica says after he pulls up a test net and measures the few shrimp he caught.

Gerica and his family barely survived Hurricane Katrina and then the next disaster hit. In 2010, 11 people were killed when an off shore BP oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. Millions of barrels of oil poured into the Gulf for weeks.

Despite receiving some settlement money, many Gulf Coast fishermen blame BP for decimating their businesses. Gerica says oil killed the nutrients fish feed on and the catch has been less and less every year since the oil spill.

"This area here, you should be able to come out at night and catch anywhere between three and 600 pounds easy at night. And there ain't nobody even working at night here," Gerica says.

So what does the Louisiana shrimp industry and the effects of the BP oil spill have to have to do with copper nickel mining in northern Minnesota?

Tony Hayward was running BP at the time of the oil spill. Hayward was criticized for his botched handling of the environmental disaster and attending a yacht race while oil polluted the Gulf, announcing that he wanted his "life back".

Now, Hayward is with a new company, one involved in what could be Minnesota's first copper-nickel mine and that worries opponents.

"I think it's important that people understand who we are doing business with," says Carron, who is with the group Sustainable Ely, one of many groups leading the charge against proposed copper-nickel mining projects in northern Minnesota.

Opponents worry about potential effects of precious metals mining on the environment and the tourism industry. Supporters say the Iron Range has a long and proud tradition of mining and should welcome this next generation of mining and the jobs and economic impact it will bring.

Tony Hayward's new company is Swiss international commodities and mining giant GlencoreXstrata. Hayward is interim chairman of Glencore's Board of Directors.

Glencore has invested millions in PolyMet, a Canadian company with mineral rights in the large Iron Range copper nickel deposit. If allowed, PolyMet's mine would be built with the help of money and mining expertise from Glencore, PolyMet's largest investor according to documents filed with Canadian securities regulators.

Critics worry that as a top Glencore executive, Tony Hayward's environmental record with the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster could spill over into Minnesota's pristine waterways.

"Is the fact that they may hire Tony Hayward going to cause the tailings piles or the waste rock piles to collapse and cause the pollution to occur? No. That fact alone won't. But it is indicative of a corporate culture," Carron says.

Business analyst and investor relations expert Bob Kleiber says it is very unlikely Hayward has any direct input in Polymet's business decisions, but Glencore might.

"You could dress it up a lot of ways but if you are the deep pockets you certainly are going to be protecting that investment," Kleiber says.

PolyMet itself is incorporated in Canada with principal offices in Toronto, and another office in St. Paul. PolyMet is one of many companies with mineral rights in the deposit known as the Duluth Complex, which stretches approximately 150 miles from Duluth to the Canadian border. PolyMet has also acquired the old LTV taconite facility in Hoyt Lakes and if its proposal to mine copper-nickel in the region makes it through the regulatory process, the plant would be turned into a copper-nickel processing facility. PolyMet and its supporters say the technology and regulation exist to do this type of mining right, with little environmental impact.

PolyMet is just one company interested in precious metals mining in northern Minnesota, but it is the furthest along in the regulatory process. PolyMet's supplemental draft Environmental Impact Statement will be released next month, followed by a public comment period, a final EIS and later, a long permitting process.

In Securities and Exchange Commission filings, PolyMet describes itself as a development stage company engaged in the exploration and development of natural resource properties. It has never operated a mine anywhere, has no production history or current revenues. However, PolyMet has attracted large investors, like mining expert Glencore.

Documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission show Glencore owns about a third of PolyMet's shares and has provided at least one multi-million dollar loan. And if the proposed mine becomes reality, Glencore will get all the ore - production concentrates, metal or intermediate products - during its first five years of production.

One Glencore employee currently sits on PolyMet's Board of Directors. Another is a member of PolyMet's Technical Steering Committee.

Still, PolyMet's CEO Jon Cherry says Glencore isn't involved day to day.

"Myself and my team of executives are responsible to the board of directors for running this company on a daily basis, doing it right and doing it well," says Cherry.

A recent BBC investigation accused Glencore of dumping acid into a river from a copper refinery in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In a statement, Glencore called it a "legacy environmental problem" and said the facility had been causing "river pollution" for "more than 50 years." Glencore took control of operations in 2009 and said it fixed the discharge problem by 2012.

But Glencore's own sustainability report shows more than a million dollars in environmental fines worldwide since 2010, although year over year, the amount is dropping.

This year, a Glencore subsidiary was fined for violating copper trading rules.

Last year a Belgian court fined Glencore 500,000 Euros in a corruption case.

And then there's Glencore's business with Iran. PolyMet's most recent annual report says its largest shareholder's non-US affiliates have various contracts with Iran. In a statement Glencore says, "[It] is currently not trading commodities with Iran, apart from supplying certain agricultural products in compliance with applicable laws and regulations, including applicable sanctions."

Glencore started in the 1970s as the Marc Rich Company. Rich infamously fled the U.S. after being charged with tax evasion and was accused of doing business with Iran during the hostage crisis. Rich was later pardoned by President Clinton.

Despite questions about Glencore's history and employee roster some wonder if it's really fair to judge the next generation of mining by its investors.

Bob Kleiber says you have to take the bad with the good. Glencore brings money and jobs to places that need it, with 200,000 thousand employees worldwide. The company has been a trailblazer in the developing world, investing in countries when no one else would.

"One has to take that in account when we evaluate - do we want these people operating in our community," Kleiber says.

And supporters of copper nickel mining say the Iron Range needs the economic boost, welcoming the investment, confident PolyMet and Glencore will follow the rules.

"They're not going to have a mine that's going to pollute and ruin their stock for the stockholders. They're going to try to do it right," says former state lawmaker and lifelong Iron Ranger Tom Rukavina.

"I don't think the debate should necessarily be about whether we mine or not, it should be about how we mine and how we do it responsibly," says PolyMet CEO Jon Cherry.

With respect to meeting environmental standards and regulations Glencore points to its
Corporate Practice publication, which says, "We believe that our long-term success requires us to prioritize health and safety and environmental management as well as the welfare of all our workers, contribute to the development and well-being of the communities in which we work, and engage in open dialogue with our stakeholders."

The publication goes on to say, "We believe that Glencore Xstrata's global presence and economic strength have a predominantly positive impact on the communities in which we operate. We seek out, undertake and contribute to activities and programmes designed to improve quality of life for the people in these communities."

Glencore describes its board of directors, including Tony Hayward, as first class with some of the world's top business leaders bringing together a breadth of collective expertise.

A PolyMet spokesperson says PolyMet recognizes that as the company wants to introduce a new kind of mining to Minnesota ithas a responsibility to prove that it can do copper-nickel mining the right way andthat investment made in Polymet is investment that benefits Minnesotans.

"We're a publicly traded company where our shares are traded on the open market, Glencore has chosen to invest heavily in the company; these are investment dollars that are being spent in Minnesota and that are benefitting Minnesotans," said Bruce Richardson of PolyMet in a statement to KARE 11. "Glencore, nor any other individual member of the board runs the company. The board collectively leaves that to Jon and his team."

Richardson was referring to Jon Cherry, who is PolyMet's CEO.

Richardson adds that PolyMet's Board of Directors has a fiduciary duty to investors to ensure it has a solid management team and says that PolyMet has in fact, brought together a group of people highly experienced in mining and environmental issues.


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