We live in a loud and troubled time, where far too many citizens would rather lob incendiary rhetoric than have a rational discussion. We saw that in our recent presidential election, and, unfortunately, it appears we’re seeing more of the same in the wake of the decision by the Obama administration to deny federal mineral leases to Twin Metals, and undertake a study of an expansion of the mining buffer zone surrounding the Boundary Waters.
The reaction from many in social media has been extreme, and the reaction from many of the region’s politicians has barely been better. The overall message is that the decision represents an attack on every resident of northern Minnesota and the death knell for mining in the region.
The truth is that a copper-nickel mining project that is currently uneconomical and highly speculative is now even less likely to happen, although the courts will have the final word on that. This isn’t an attack on mining, nor on northern Minnesota jobs.
Instead, it is a recognition that there are different means of building a healthy economy, and that, in this instance, the potential for harm to an incalculably valuable resource was too significant to overlook.
Even the strongest advocates of resource extraction acknowledge that there are some places where it simply doesn’t make sense. Building a sulfide-based copper-nickel mine on the edge of the Boundary Waters, within a pristine wilderness watershed, is literally the worst place in the world for such a facility. Sulfide in rock reacts with air and water to form sulfuric acid, which leaches heavy metals and other toxins from rock, resulting in ongoing contamination lasting for centuries.
It is exactly that process that rendered the waters of the Berkeley pit, a former sulfide-based copper mine near Butte, Montana, so toxic that thousands of geese died earlier this month simply from drinking the water. We’re not suggesting that waters would ever become that contaminated here, but our region’s shallow soils and lack of buffering capacity clearly exacerbate the threat posed by acid mine drainage.
Such mineral resources are best developed in dry regions, where the risk of toxic runoff, and the damage done from major disasters, which are all too common in the mining industry, are minimized. Locating such a mine just upstream of America’s most-loved wilderness, that currently boasts some of the purest water in the world, elevates the risk to unacceptable levels.
Supporters of the Twin Metals project have argued that Minnesota is the best place to mine because the state has tough environmental standards. But as we’ve learned in recent years, those standards are routinely ignored when it comes to the mining industry. Sorry, but that’s a very real fact. No one can legitimately claim that Twin Metals, or any mine, in Minnesota is going to meet the highest standards when neither state regulators, nor state legislators, require it.
That is not intended in any way to diminish the importance of mining in Minnesota. It is simply a recognition that benefits derived from mining come with associated costs, both environmental and economic.
In either case, mining isn’t under threat in Minnesota, despite the hyperbolic claims made by some Twin Metals supporters. The proposed expansion of the mining buffer zone around the edge of the Boundary Waters would not impact any existing mine, nor any currently proposed mine, other than Twin Metals. It will not impact the PolyMet project, nor will it have any impact on the taconite industry.
We recognize and share the frustration that many feel about the seemingly endless struggles of the region’s economy. But we need to recognize that mining is, in part, responsible for those struggles. The boom and bust cycles inherent in mining make mining economies particularly unstable and lacking in diversity.
In communities like Ely and Tower, there’s an effort to transition to a different economic model, based on the creation of high quality-of-life communities, with outstanding recreational resources, where people will want to visit, to live, and to create new and sustainable economic opportunities. At a minimum, it makes sense to give those efforts the chance to succeed.
So let’s quit lobbing the verbal hand grenades and start the real work of building a diverse and stable economy that can provide jobs people need today.