This is a piece I originally wrote for my newspaper, but I was unable to find a good source with an opposite viewpoint to balance the story out. However, my own views on this issue are unequivocal — once the Boundary Waters are polluted, we can’t get them back.
The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is one of Minnesota’s biggest draws, both to locals and visitors, but the proposal of a copper mine just a few miles outside the protected area has caused concern across the state.
In the northeast metro, one group has been holding public meetings to discuss what mining near the BWCAW might mean for Minnesota’s wilderness and industry. Chris Donato works for the organization Save the Boundary Waters, which has focused its efforts on the proposed Twin Metals mine project south of Ely. The mine would be located along the south Kawishiwi River, in the same watershed as the Boundary Waters.
Impacts on the ecosystem
According to its website, Twin Metals would extract copper, nickel, gold, platinum and palladium from four underground mine locations. These metals are encased in sulfide-bearing rock, or volcanic rock that has been buried by centuries of sediment. The rock is located so deep below the earth’s surface that it has never been exposed to oxygen or water. The mining process brings this rock to the surface, where it reacts with air and water to create sulfuric acid. Nearby fish and wildlife would have to adjust to increased acidity in the water, and many would die off. Plant life would also begin to die, and the banks of the waterways begin to erode without the support of those root systems.
The mine website reports that excess rock will remain underground as backfill, but some waste will be stored in aboveground containers known as tailings ponds, which have been known to leach into groundwater. Environmental regulations do not require that a mine create zero pollution; they simply require pollution stay below an acceptable level. For Donato, however, the only acceptable level is zero.
“The Boundary Waters are so pristine that any pollution is going to be noticed, and it’s going to impact the people who rely on these areas,” he said.
This type of mining has never been done in Minnesota, but it has been done in Chile, Arizona, Utah and Montana.
“Treating sulfuric acid pollution takes up to 500 years,” Donato said. “The company claims, ‘We’ll treat it for 500 years.’ I don’t know if you can think of a company that’s been around for 500 years, but I certainly can’t. We haven’t even been a country for 500 years.”
However, Twin Metals has addressed environmental sustainability as one of its standards. “Environmental protection will be a design criteria — not an add on — for the proposed project,” the website said. It promises to work closely with state and federal agencies to meet and exceed all environmental standards.
Mining and industry
Copper and other strategic metals are used in many industries, including modern technology, and in parts used in components of renewable energy resource systems such as wind turbines. Copper mining is required to produce alternative energy. “The problem is, there’s no shortage of copper,” Donato said.
According to a 2012 report from the U.S. Geologic Survey, if all existing copper mines stay at current production, there are approximately 270 years’ worth of copper yet to mined.
“The only reason to open this mine is that the company wants to increase its bottom line,” Donato said. “That’s not a negative thing; that’s what business is.”
Twin Metals has had mining permits for the land since the 1960s, but has never taken action on them. In 2015, the U.S. Forest Service denied the renewal of the mine’s permits in order to conduct a two-year environmental review. After that period, Twin Metals is free to reapply for the permits, but it is likely that the environmental review will recommend that no mining be introduced to the area, Donato said. Some legislators, such as Rick Nolan, have taken action to try to appeal the environmental review process in order for the mine to move forward. In an open letter to the U.S. Forest Service written in July 2016, Nolan wrote: “The potential economic benefits are substantial and provide a ray of hope and optimism for local families and communities that have seen a loss of jobs and a steady painful economic decline over the past 30 years.”
Those in support of the mine recognize that it will introduce many new jobs into the area. The Twin Metals website states that the project would create as many as 1,700 to 1,900 additional indirect jobs in the region’s economy.
“Back in the 1950s and ’60s, people worked in the mines so their kids didn’t have to,” Donato said. “Now you hear people at public hearings saying, ‘My grandfather was a miner, my father was a miner, I’m a miner, my kid’s a miner;’ it’s become part of their economic identity.”
Donato also pointed out that northern Minnesota has cultivated a tourism industry, which could take a heavy hit if a mine is introduced.
“The community depends on people from all over going up and spending money at the restaurants, the businesses, the outfitters. All of it goes together to support this wilderness economy,” he said.
However, the Twin Metals website points out that mining is under threat in the area, and that withdrawing mineral rights in the area will damage the area’s economy irreversibly.
“If enacted, the withdrawal proposal will cause the state to lose the potential for thousands of mining jobs, billions of dollars in future investment in northeast Minnesota, and billions in future revenues for the state’s K-12 education system,” it said.
Effects in the northeast metro
“If you talk to any Minnesota business owner, or the reason why people choose to work and live in the Minnesota metro, one of the biggest things that statistics will show is that it’s access to the outdoors,” Donato said. A 2004 DNR survey reported that 84 percent of Minnesotans reported that outdoor recreation in their daily life was either very or somewhat important.
Donato pointed out that many families in Anoka, Ramsey and Washington counties are cabin owners who consistently travel to the Boundary Waters region. Twin Metals will coexist with this industry, but Donato said the nearby mine may have an impact on home values in the area.
“Any one of those people who owns a cabin or owns property or goes up there and spends their hard-earned money at the resorts and campsites, that all will be diminished if the water quality decreases from these mines.”
Mining is also a finite industry, Donato said. Regardless of the number of jobs it creates in the immediate future, eventually it will exhaust its resources.
“However, the Boundary Waters, if it’s maintained, will be there forever … it is self-sustaining,” Donato said. “It is something that is an economic driver. And it is something that people will move for and people will move to Minnesota for.”
The Forest Service is now holding a public comment period to collect feedback from Minnesotans about the mine. The comment period lasts until April 20, and feedback can be given online at http://www.fs.fed.us/about-agency/contact-us or over the phone at 800-832-1355.
Repeated attempts were made to contact the Twin Metals office for comment, but I did not receive a response before press time. To learn more about Twin Metals, visit http://www.twin-metals.com. To learn more about Save the Boundary Waters, visit http://www.savetheboundarywaters.org. The group will also be present at the inaugural Water Action Day at the Minnesota State Capitol on April 19; visit the website to learn more.