Minnesotans fight to keep mining out of the Boundary Waters region

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Photo from Boundarywaters.com

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

Watershed MapAccording 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. 13000159_10207971869287321_3290990106088177867_n

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Trekfest 2015: A Fistful of Datas

I first heard about Trekfest in 2012 when I stumbled upon the Riverside website.

Ready to depart on the U.S.S. Riverside!

Ready to depart on the U.S.S. Riverside!

Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek television series alluded to Iowa as being the home state of the larger-than-life James Tiberius Kirk, Captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise. A Riverside councilman picked up on this bit of trivia and petitioned Roddenberry to name Riverside as Kirk’s official hometown. Roddenberry granted the request, and although Riverside was not mentioned by name onscreen, it has remained the official birth town of the famed captain ever since. “I’m from Iowa. I only work in Outer Space.” – Captain James T. Kirk. The festival has enjoyed attention from Trek fans worldwide, with a few appearances from show-affiliated celebrities such as William Shatner. This year’s theme was “A Fistful of Datas:” referencing a Next Generation episode with a Wild West theme, which explained the prevalence of cowboy hats and spurs from guests in attendance (plus a few creative variations.) It was a five-hour drive from the Twin Cities, and we stayed in North Liberty–just 20 minutes drive away from the little town of Riverside. Upon entering the town, we weren’t too hopeful–it looked pretty much like you expect a rural, run-down agricultural town to look.

Regular Iowan farm town--with a few familiar faces.

Regular Iowan farm town–with a few familiar faces.

There weren’t too many people around, but the Riverside museum (called The Voyage Home), containing oodles of Star Trek memorabilia, was still open. The town’s model starship–guaranteed not to provoke copyright infringement–was poised on a trailer in the parking lot, along with a small shuttlecraft. We had our picture moment and enjoyed watching another fan, sporting an Admiral’s uniform from The Wrath of Khan, inspect the ship decorously. Inside the museum were glass cases full of every Star Trek trinket you could imagine: signed posters, full-size cutouts, puzzles, McDonald’s Happy Meal Toys, Christmas tree ornaments, action figures, costumes, props–even a photo album commemorating Riverside’s history (or is it their future?) intertwined with Roddenberry’s dream vision. I felt a little bad for the exhibits and artifacts presenting Riverside’s frontier history, which remain next to unnoticed in the sparkling glamour of the collectibles and knickknacks.IMG_3700

Remembering Leonard Nimoy and Grace Lee Whitney.

Remembering Leonard Nimoy and Grace Lee Whitney.

The merchandise was a little disappointing, but they did have acommemorative T-shirt honoring the life of Leonard Nimoy, who died in February this year. I bought a communications officer badge from the front counter (figure that’s the closest thing to my real life) and though I was tempted by the plastic Vulcan ears, I had to pass for the time being.

Starfleet has attempted this before.

Starfleet has attempted this before.

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Attempting a dangerous mind meld with the silicon-based life form the horta, spotted in the Riverside parade.

Everyone we met in Riverside was totally friendly and talkative, which I appreciated greatly. I  don’t know how I’d feel about having a stampeding nerd herd flooding my town once a year; like Bill Shatner, I might be tempted to tell them to “get a life.” But in all seriousness, everyone involved seemed to have a fabulous time, embracing the theme wholeheartedly in their town parade and doling out barbecue, sno-cones and pies to visitors with friendly affability. We participated in a Star Trek trivia contest, but our casual affinity for the show was no match for the diehard fans. These are the Ensign and Lieutenant-level questions I was asked; (I left the Captain and Admiral levels to the real experts):

1. Name three drinks from the Star Trek universe.

2. At what age do the race Kaelon, from the Next Generation episode “Half a Life,” commit suicide?

3. What is the full name of Captain Kirk’s son?

4. What is the full name of the captain who preceded Kirk as captain of the Enterprise?

Acceptable answers included: 1. Klingon blood wine, Romulan ale, synthahol; 2. Age 60; 3. David Marcus; and 4. Captain Christopher Pike. I was only able to correctly answer the last one; I could never have answered an Admiral-level question! I’ll be sure to study up for next year. I look forward to seeing what Riverside comes up in 2016. Only 213 more years until one of Starfleet’s greatest is born! IMG_3713