Recently, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) announced it was considering protecting Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) from the threat of sulfide-ore copper mining by withholding consent to the renewal of two mineral leases. The leases, held by Twin Metals, which is owned by the Chilean mining giant Antofagasta, expired nearly two and a half years ago on Dec. 31, 2013, and are up for renewal.
As explained by Minnesota Backcountry Hunters & Anglers (BHA) board member, Will Jenkins: “While iron ore mines have a long history in Minnesota, sulfide-ore copper mines are very different … Every mine in the world has caused … contamination of its surrounding area. Sulfuric acid and heavy metals leech into the soil and contaminate waterways.” And as former assistant Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (PCA) commissioner, Ron Way, said: “Copper-nickel mining … Truth is, such mining has proved environmentally harmful, even disastrous, wherever in the world it’s been done.”
Former U.S. Vice President Walter Mondale adds: “Sulfide-ore mining has never—never—been undertaken without serious environmental consequences. Sulfide-ore mining is dangerous everywhere and most dangerous in wet environments. And the Boundary Waters is nothing if not wet. The consequences of such mining are perpetual. They will surely outlive all of us and will just as surely outlive the mining company’s pledges, promises and sureties.”
Thankfully, during March Gov. Mark Dayton weighed in on Twin Metal’s controversial sulfide mine proposal. Saying he has “grave concerns” about the proposed Twin Metals underground mine near Ely, Dayton directed Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Commissioner Tom Landwehr “not to authorize or enter into any new state access agreements or lease agreements for mining operations” on state lands that would be part of the proposed mine.
However, there’s another sulfide mining proposal—that’s just as potentially damaging to waterways and watersheds—being pushed by Canadian company PolyMet Corp. PolyMet’s largest investor is a Swiss commodities trading firm, Glencore, which is known worldwide for its shoddy environmental/human rights record, not to mention that they intend to sell copper concentrate to China.
Although PolyMet has said the toxic runoff from its proposed mining operation near Babbitt won’t impact the BWCAW, the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC) ran their water model and determined that PolyMet’s pollution will indeed flow into the BWCAW watershed; the DNR still has not run the model, relying solely on PolyMet’s paid consultant.
In addition, a March 2016 poll found that 67 percent of Minnesotans oppose sulfide mining in areas near the Boundary Waters and only 16 percent support the proposals. This majority opposition spans the range of political leanings, as well those in the eighth Congressional District, which contains the proposed mining areas. It’s tempting to buy into the false optimism, the smoke and mirrors rhetoric, claiming that these sulfide mines can be operated without any risk to northern Minnesota’s sky-blue waterways and watersheds, but when you turn over even a few rocks, the promised prospects enter the realm of fantasy.
“The Boundary Waters Wilderness is a world-class fishing, hunting and all-around outdoors destination,” said Scott Hed, outreach director for Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters. “Its water is some of the cleanest on this earth and the Wilderness is a major driver in the economy of Northern Minnesota. The Forest Service’s announcement recognizes the significance of the Boundary Waters … and acknowledges the serious dangers posed by sulfide-ore copper mining.”
David Lien is Grand Rapids (Minn.) native, former Air Force officer and co-chairman of the Minnesota Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. He’s the author of “Hunting for Experience II: Tales of Hunting & Habitat Conservation” and during 2014 was recognized by Field & Stream as a “Hero of Conservation.”