REGIONAL—Advo-cates for the Boundary Waters have gained a key ally in their quest to head off proposed copper-nickel mining within the watershed that encompasses the 1.1 million-acre wilderness …
REGIONAL—Advo-cates for the Boundary Waters have gained a key ally in their quest to head off proposed copper-nickel mining within the watershed that encompasses the 1.1 million-acre wilderness area.
U.S. Rep. Betty Mc-Collum, DFL-St. Paul, introduced a bill in Congress this week that would would effectively prohibit mining on federally-owned lands within the Rainy River watershed.
The measure would not affect a copper-nickel mine proposed by PolyMet Mining, which is located within the St. Louis River watershed, which ultimately empties into Lake Superior.
Whether it would affect leases held by Twin Metals, which is developing a proposed mining operation southeast of Ely, remains to be seen.
Those leases, now controlled by Chilean mining giant Antofagasta, expired over a year ago. While the company has applied for renewal, opponents of the mine are hoping to prevent that from happening.
Introduction of McCollum’s bill, known as the National Park and Wilderness Waters Protection Act, is just the latest action taken by the recently-established Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, a joint effort by a coalition of environmental groups aimed at what many wilderness advocates see as an existential threat to water quality within the canoe country.
Bill supporters say it represents a historic step towards completing permanent protection for the Boundary Waters and Voyageurs National Park, even though it is seen as having little chance of passage in the Republican-dominated Congress. But Becky Rom, an Ely resident and national chair of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, said the bill “sets up the framework for a policy debate.”
While the McCollum bill may face a tough path to passage, Rom was in Washington recently to lobby the Obama administration to enact a 20-year moratorium on copper-nickel mining within the Boundary Waters watershed. Rom said the president can take such action on an executive basis, and noted that the president did just that recently when he placed a moratorium on uranium mining near Grand Canyon National Park.
Twin Metals, in a statement issued Tuesday, made clear its strong opposition to McCollum’s bill and any possible moratorium on mining within the Rainy River watershed. “The vast Rainy River basin contains millions of acres of valuable state and federal minerals, and in much of the area environmentally responsible mining is currently allowed and encouraged by both state and federal law,” said the company.
“The withdrawal of federal minerals from future development across this wide area of northern Minnesota, and the related impact of negating future development of state and private minerals, would have a devastating impact on future job growth and the overall economy across the Iron Range and throughout northern Minnesota. Especially devastating would be the potential loss of billions of dollars in future revenues to the Minnesota Permanent School Trust Fund.”
Mining opponents contend that copper-nickel mining poses risks unfamiliar to Minnesotans, since the sulfur-bearing ore that contains the metals can leach sulfuric acid when exposed to air and water, and they fear the impacts of such pollution threatens a viable local tourism economy based on wilderness travel.
“Sulfide-ore copper mining on the edge of the Boundary Waters would do more harm than good for this beloved region,” said Rom. “Allowing industrialized mining on the edge of the Boundary Waters would not only pollute water, it would also destroy National Forest lands in areas now used for hunting, fishing, snowmobiling, dogsledding, hiking, logging, and other activities,” said Rom.
McCollum introduced her bill in the same week that a new statewide poll conducted for the Minnesota Environmental Partnership found significant opposition to copper-nickel mining near the Boundary Waters, even among those polled in northeastern Minnesota. The poll, conducted by Anzalone Liszt & Grove Research, found nearly half of Minnesotans (46 percent) were undecided about copper-nickel mining in Minnesota. Twenty-eight percent expressed opposition to copper-nickel mining, while 26 percent expressed support. But when asked of their views on copper-nickel mining near the popular Boundary Waters Canoe Area, opposition jumped sharply, to 62 percent statewide, and to a surprising 61 percent within the seven-county Arrowhead region. The poll, at the same time, found strong support (72 percent) for northeastern Minnesota’s iron mining industry.
The poll also found that Minnesotans remain skeptical of the promises of mining companies. Only 33 percent of those polled felt mining companies could be trusted to protect against seepage, leaks, or accidents that could pollute the air and water. Fifty-four percent felt the companies could not be trusted.
The Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters has gained strength in recent months with the addition of nine paid staff members, including three now based in Ely. The campaign, led by Ely-based Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness, has ramped up its political efforts at a time when most local residents have come to see the Twin Metals proposal as at least several years away, and possibly more. The Twin Metals project, which began as a joint venture is now wholly- owned by Antofagasta.
If ultimately developed, the Twin Metals mine would create about 850 jobs and produce about 50,000 tons of ore per day, according to the company. Current plans call for an underground mining operation located about seven miles southeast of Ely.
Twin Metals officials say their company is fully committed to protecting water quality in the Boundary Waters. “Twin Metals Minnesota is fully committed to protecting Minnesota’s wilderness, natural environment and recreational resources. We share the vision and goals of all Minnesotans to protect the precious and unique environmental qualities and wilderness character of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and all of northern Minnesota,” said the company in its statement.
Mining opponents say the economic benefits of the mine are potentially outweighed by the risks to the environment and the tourism economy that has developed in the region. For backers of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, the risks are too great to justify any consideration of new mining ventures, and that’s why the group is seeking to head off additional mining proposals.
And the group is fighting mining plans on multiple fronts. In addition to the recent legislation, lobbying, and polling, the group has commissioned economic studies that suggest the economic benefits of new mining have been oversold, and that the negative economic consequences have been largely ignored by mining boosters.