On October 8, Clearwater Biologic, LLC—a company developed to economically remove sulfates from mining-affected waters in Northern Minnesota—was awarded $10,000 for being the best 2018 start-up company in Greater Minnesota. The award was presented by the Minnesota Department of Education and Economic Development at the MN Cup final awards ceremony at the Carlson School of Business and Management on the Minneapolis U of M campus.
Clearwater Biologic is headquartered in Babbitt, the birthplace of taconite mining and a central location for the proposed extraction of the confirmed copper-nickel-platinum group metals on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.
According to Rob Scarlett, senior adviser to Clearwater Biologic, the company’s lower-cost, natural biological process offers an affordable way for the mines to comply with any reasonable water quality standard. The process will help save mining industry jobs and create new environmental industry jobs. Sulfate removal through this system will protect the wild rice harvest and the health of all people who depend on area waters for drinking and recreation.
Until the development of this biological process, reverse osmosis was the only way to reduce sulfate to the low concentrations that have been proposed for wild rice protection. Reverse osmosis is effective, but extremely expensive, in part because it demands a great deal of electrical power and leaves behind a brine that must be evaporated and then landfilled. Clearwater BioLogic, according to Jeff Hanson from Babbitt, is able to remove sulfate at a fraction of the cost of reverse osmosis and requires only as much power as can be supplied by on-site solar panels.
Clearwater BioLogic, formed by Hanson of Babbitt and Bill Newman of Minneapolis, will produce a precipitate of fine-grain sulfur along with some iron. As a side-benefit, the precipitate has the potential of being used a fertilizer for corn fields.
Newman says that Clearwater Biologic is ready to deploy bioreactor modules into mine-pit lakes to remove dissolved sulfate before the water enters area streams or natural lakes.
Here’s how the process works. The modules are filled with fibers to which native bacteria attach. The bacteria, which are moved into the modules along with small samples of mud from nearby swampy areas, convert the sulfate to hydrogen sulfide. The hydrogen sulfide is then chemically converted to a fine grain sulfur and iron slurry that is pumped off and removed from the system. The modular design allows for both small and large water flows depending on which is needed for that particular Minnesota mining applications. These modules operate below the water surface and, in winter, below the ice.
Researchers from the University of Minnesota have accompanied the development of the system. In 2017 they published a report verifying the positive results of the biological portion of the system. The success of the chemical portion has now been established as well. It relies on the proven sulfide control expertise of USP Technologies, part of a $17 billion company.
The Clearwater Biologic has proven that its process can regularly remove 90 percent (and, if necessary, 100 percent) of the sulfate in water even when starting at 1,100 parts per million and even in winter. To get to 0 percent of sulfate, more modules would be needed, but, even then, the cost is not prohibitive.
Capital costs for installation are minimal. No entity that wishes to have sulfate removed needs to buy a system. If a mining company, for example, wants sulfate removed from a mine pit lake or tailings basin or if it wishes to dewater an active mine, it would pay for the number of gallons treated or pounds of sulfate removed. The cost would be 80 to 90 percent below that of reverse osmosis.
Jeff Hanson graduated from Babbitt High School and maintains a home on the side of Birch Lake; he worked as an environmental engineer and business owner in Brazil for 30 years but has now returned to his native lands. Bill Newman is the owner and founder of RNAS Remediation Products a leading provider of bioremediation products for in situ and groundwater remediation; he is also an avid kayaker and outdoorsman who co-authored two guidebooks on kayaking the Great Lakes. Rob Scarlett has been intimately involved in the mining industry in Minnesota and worldwide. They are poised to employ a good number of Range residents as soon as sulfate-reduction projects are implemented.
They point out that their economical solution for removing high sulfate concentration will support taconite mining jobs, offer protection for the environment, and develop new, good jobs in bioremediation.