Minnesota, otherwise known as “the land of 10,000 lakes,” is rich in outdoors tradition, and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) is one of Minnesota’s most cherished resources. Located in Northeastern Minnesota, BWCA is made up of 1.1 million acres of clean freshwater and remote forest and offers tremendous outdoor recreation opportunities. With trophy northern pike, walleye, smallmouth bass, brook trout, and lake trout, as well as beautiful scenery, it comes as no surprise that this region fuels Northern Minnesota’s more than $913 million tourism industry and is America’s most visited wilderness area.
However, for the past several years, BWCA has stared down a growing threat: Twin Metals Minnesota’s sulfide-ore copper mine. The proposed mine would be located just outside BWCA, posing an immediate threat to the troves of aquatic and terrestrial species that call the region home. As is the case with all mines, there are serious risks associated with any degree of the operation. Twin Metals’ proposed mine is no exception. The greatest threat from Twin Metals’ mine would be acid mine drainage (AMD). When mines uncover earthen material and expose these tailings to the elements, a chemical reaction occurs and oftentimes creates AMD, which is very environmentally toxic.
This region was previously protected from mining by legislation and an Obama administration moratorium on mining activities. However, in December of 2017, Obama’s moratorium was reversed by the Trump administration, by renewing Twin Metals’ mineral lease. Oh, did we mention Twin Metals is a foreign owned company? This decision raised eyebrows, leading to a concerning discovery. The Washington Post wrote, “The action, made public in an Interior Department legal decision, marks a win for the Chilean mining firm belonging to the family of billionaire Andrónico Luksic, who rents a home to Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, in Washington.” Also, the reversal directly contradicted a 2016 US Forest Service study that found a mine would pose an “unacceptable risk of irreparable harm” to BWCA.
Until recently, little was known about the specifics and scope of Twin Metal’s mining plan. Several weeks ago, however, Twin Metals released its project proposal, initiating the public review process. The issue with this process is that it primarily examines data and studies provided by company behind the project. Twin Metals’ proposal will be scrutinized by state and federal agencies and countered with alternatives. Once this process begins, projects often amass too much momentum to prevent completion. Further, at the end of this long process, regulators generally base their decisions on state standards and guidelines, rather than potential risks to natural resources and environments such as BWCA.
Upon initial review of Twin Metals’ proposal, there are some blaring issues. Twin Metals says they would manage water “to avoid and minimize environmental impacts subject to appropriate federal and state agency oversight.” To me, this sounds like Twin Metals is hoping to put the bare minimum safeguards in place, while still leaving the door open for potential adverse environmental impacts. Additionally, in the “Summary of Cumulative Potential Effects” section, Twin Metals finds ” the environmentally relevant areas could not be determined due to the need to complete additional scopes of work.” By no means am I knowledgeable in mining proposal documents, but this section seems like a good place to identify possible impacts–no matter how unlikely of happening. Further, Twin Metals claims their proposed mine would not produce any AMD (the very toxic substance generated from hardrock mining), because they would use a dry stacking technique for tailings. However, the verdict on the effectiveness of dry stacking is not conclusive at this time. For example, this technique has major disadvantages in wet climates. Becky Rom, of Save the Boundary Waters, finds dry stacking even more dangerous, because the tailings would be stored within the BWCA watershed.
In addition to the release of Twin Metals’ proposal, there have been a couple big developments for BWCA. First, Minnesota’s Court of Appeals reversed a permit decision for PolyMet, another mining company seeking to break ground on the state’s first copper-nickel mine. While the PolyMet mine is very different from Twin Metals’ proposal, this decision sets a promising precedent in Minnesota. Second, in the craziness that was passing the Federal spending bill last month, language that would have mandated a study to examine the effects of copper-nickel mining near BWCA had been struck. Without knowing the actual, science-backed impacts of mining in this region, how can Twin Metals’ mine continue moving forward?
One thing is for certain though: these processes take a long, long time. From here, Twin Metals will begin the environmental review and permitting processes, which involve months long public comment periods and project modifications. The public comment periods are great opportunities for stakeholders to voice their concerns and protect BWCA. Thankfully groups like Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters and Save the Boundary Waters are actively monitoring the entire process and providing the public with information and ways to help.
Lukas Leaf, the executive director of Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters, had this to say about Twin Metals’ project proposal: “The stark reality is Twin Metals’ mine plan, submitted today, will pollute the Boundary Waters. So, let’s be clear – Entering into this process as a state will not change what we know about the type of mine they have proposed.” In similar fashion, Land Tawney, President of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, said: “There has never been a copper/sulfide mine that hasn’t leached. Never. Right now, the future of the Boundary Waters hangs in the balance. There shall be no mine here … not ever … not on BHA’s watch.” The Boundary Waters are too special to allow foreign and industrial interests to harm them. If you want to help protect the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, be sure to check out and follow Save the Boundary Waters and Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters! Skol Boundary Waters!