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Why Minnesota can’t afford mining near the Boundary Waters

Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness

Growing up in Minnesota, I took the lakes for granted. To me, living in the “Land of 10,000 Lakes” meant summers at the cabin – waterskiing, fishing and family time on the dock. The lakes I knew were surrounded by houses and roads, and I remember falling asleep most nights to the gentle but persistent hum of motorboats wafting across the glassy water. (Almost as persistent as the hungry mosquitos buzzing around my ears at bedtime.) Even through the noise, I slept peacefully in the cool Northern Minnesota breeze.

Adam Fetcher

It wasn’t until my family’s first trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, when I was in grade school, that my notion of Minnesota’s abundant lakes suddenly shifted. There were no docks, no jet skis, no golf courses – things I once considered requirements for a great Minnesota summer. Lowering a canoe into the pristine, interwoven system of lakes and rivers that make up the Boundary Waters brought a loud epiphany that was drowned out only by the sheer silence of the place. I imagined the surrounding landscape teeming with grey wolves, black bears, otters, beavers, whitetail deer, moose, eagles, ravens, lynx and loons – my favorite. I fell in love immediately and paddled off into the wild carrying a new appreciation for the fresh, clean waters that make Minnesota so special. That first night, I’ve never slept better – and in the following years I came back to the Boundary Waters many times.

But when I returned last August after a few summers away, despite the wondrous quiet, my sleep was disturbed. Under a soft rain, my dreams were filled with dread: The Boundary Waters is facing a dire threat from proposed sulfide-ore mining within its watershed, less than a mile from the wilderness edge. This type of mining is especially toxic. Scientific analysis, including a recent study published in the Journal of Hydrology, show that pollution could flow directly downstream into the heart of the Boundary Waters and devastate the entire ecosystem for hundreds of years. Like the blood in our veins, the area’s interconnected system of lakes and rivers can be instantly damaged by even the smallest intrusion. The EPA called sulfide-ore mining “the most toxic industry in America.”

A transformed town

After exiting the wilderness, I enjoyed an afternoon beer in Ely, at the Boundary Waters’ southern edge. Looking around, I took in the scene: outfitters teeming with people, a couple of restaurants with packed tables, a busy street featuring a diverse array of open storefronts, and lawn signs supporting a grassroots campaign to protect the wilderness. People young and old walked swiftly around town, excited to be living full lives in the most modern of historic towns – one that has transformed itself from busted mining town to a bustling, sustainable economy over the past 30 years. It’s an economy built on the Boundary Waters.

While mining helped make Minnesota great in past generations, the Ely of today perfectly encapsulates the Minnesota I love. This is the North – we embrace our cold, snowy winters as integral to our identity. It’s a state full of well-rounded, resourceful people adept at dreaming up and implementing the biggest new ideas while sitting in a modern office – or hunkered down in a warm, remote cabin. It’s a state that draws talented people from all over the world with a high quality of life, great infrastructure, outstanding schools and a supportive environment for businesses of all kinds. And it’s a state that values the great outdoors. Here, lakes are loved by hunters and anglers, executives and blue collar workers, urban and rural families, liberals and conservatives, and everyone else. It’s what binds us together.

A blow to the Boundary Waters would not only wound the water and wildlife that make it special – it would hurt the spirit of the North itself, and Minnesota’s social and economic spirit would suffer tremendously. Losing the Boundary Waters wouldn’t just cost us a world-class wilderness – it could cost us many of the 18,000 jobs and $850 million [PDF] in regional economic activity driven by tourism. The Boundary Waters is America’s No. 1 most-visited wilderness, bringing about 250,000 visitors from all over the world to northern Minnesota every year. This special place is a source of pride for every generation of Minnesotan and a source of inspiration for wilderness lovers everywhere else.

Mining has a place in our economy. We all consume products derived from sulfide-ore mining, and I feel deeply for the people of Minnesota’s Iron Range suffering from the devastating loss of mining jobs in recent decades, causing economic collapse. But mining has never been a stable basis for long-term community prosperity. More important, the Boundary Waters is not on the Iron Range. And the edge of a pristine, water-intensive wilderness is not the right place for industrial mining pits. The history of sulfide-ore mining in the United States is a story of contamination of groundwater, surface waters and land. Like a drop of food coloring spreading fast in a bucket of water, even the slightest pollution runs the chance of damaging the entire wilderness – a risk Minnesota and its economy can’t afford.

Some extraordinary developments

Thankfully, this month we’ve seen some extraordinary developments in the effort to protect the Boundary Waters. First, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton expressed his strong opposition to proposed sulfide-ore mining by Twin Metals Minnesota, a subsidiary of the Chilean mining giant Antofagasta. I was proud and thankful to see the governor take a strong stand in favor of protecting a place he called Minnesota’s “crown jewel” – one that plays such an important role in his state’s identity. He’s not alone: A new poll was released just after his announcement showing that a vast majority of Minnesotans from throughout the state and across the political spectrum oppose sulfide-ore mining in the Boundary Waters watershed.

The next day, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management – which holds the expired mining leases being considered for renewal – announced that it has the legal authority [PDF] to deny the leases pending the results of a public environmental analysis, which will use the best science available to determine if the Boundary Waters watershed is the right place for mining. It’s heartening to know the Obama administration is committed to a rigorous study of the merits and risks presented by proposed mining. Following the proper process is important, and the mining leases have never before been subjected to environmental analysis.

These are important steps forward, but there is a lot more work to do. The Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters is leading a major effort to bring together a broad and diverse coalition – including businesses, sportsmen, environmentalists, veterans and more – of individuals and groups in favor of keeping the wilderness pristine for our children to enjoy and so our economy can continue to thrive. Please consider joining the campaign by visiting their website and signing your name to the list of thousands of people from across Minnesota and around the world who love the Boundary Waters. When the time comes to advocate for protection as the government reviews the leases, the campaign will need your voice.

A unique place that should be untouchable

And now more than ever, the vast community of people from across the United States who have visited the Boundary Waters need to make their voices heard as well. The Boundary Waters is a unique national treasure unlike anything else in the world. It should be counted among other untouchable places that hold the power to change lives in a single night spent under the stars – and it should be protected.

I listed many positive traits shared by Minnesotans above. But perhaps more than anything else, Minnesota is a state that looks forward, not back – where Ely and many other communities throughout the state provide the vision of a new economic model that can sustain us for the future. The Boundary Waters plays a huge role in making the North everything we’re proud of – a place for prosperity, family, balance and a world-class culture rooted deeply in the outdoors.

Don’t take the lakes for granted. Without the Boundary Waters, we’re just flyover country.

Adam Fetcher, of Minneapolis, is the director of global PR & communications for Patagonia and a board member of the Boundary Waters Trust. Previously, Adam was deputy national press secretary for President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign and served in the Obama administration.


If you’re interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, email Susan Albright at

Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Litfin on 03/28/2016 - 12:31 pm.

    Very well written, thank you.

  2. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 03/28/2016 - 01:28 pm.

    What is in it for me?

    This is the tone of this article. What he may be saying about the risk of mining could be true, but he is making this purely a matter of self interest – he doesn’t want one of “his” favorite things changing. Of course, he doesn’t’ live on the Range – he wants it there as a place to visit. It is sort of “not in my backyard” argument, when the Iron Range is actually someone else’s backyard. For other people who live there and want jobs to support a family, it is their backyard. This is sort of like people in the suburbs who can afford lake cabins not wanting less well off families to be able to store their campers in their yard – because of visual pollution.

    The only bottom line is pollution. If the mines are going to unavoidably create toxic waste that will pollute the air and water continuously and long-term, it isn’t just an Iron Range backyard issue – it affects the whole state. A national park itself should be pristine, but on other public lands, uses that don’t result in massive pollution should be considered, Simply being “unsightliness” is in the eye of the beholder is not enough. A job site filled with well paid workers is also a beautiful thing for a region that has too little of it. I hope that those who decide what to do aren’t captive of either of the opposing viewpoints, but perhaps can find the illusive middle ground.

    • Submitted by Todd Adler on 03/29/2016 - 12:39 pm.


      Unfortunately, there isn’t much of a middle ground on this on. This isn’t a matter of an unsightly object near the Boundary Waters. If it were something that simple, we could put up a fence or a thick buffer of trees to shield the site, assuming the noise pollution isn’t also beyond the pale.

      The big rub is the water pollution, which takes a minimum of 200 – 500 years to process and probably a lot longer. Chances are the company will undercapitalize that portion of the operation and walk away from it and declare bankruptcy if their feet are held to the fire. Just like every other mining company since the dawn of time.

      It’s like Lucy holding the football for Charlie Brown: just me just this one more time. I promise I won’t do you harm. Given such a poor track record with the industry, people are naturally a little wary of taking a kick at that ball.

  3. Submitted by Jean Cole on 03/28/2016 - 03:24 pm.

    Read these please


    I’m so glad you enjoy your annual trip to the BWCAW. Unfortunately, an annual visit is not the way to understand a community or a region. We need good jobs. How about you start a business up here, hire some employees, provide them with benefits and a pension, contribute to our economy? When all the mining retirees living in the Ely area with their good mining pensions die, then what?

    Read the opinion pieces below for an “eyes-wide-open” view.,12591?content_source=&category_id=7&search_filter=&event_mode=&event_ts_from=&list_type=&order_by=&order_sort=&content_class=&sub_type=stories&town_id=

  4. Submitted by Bill Willy on 03/28/2016 - 03:26 pm.

    Is another Crown Jewel being forgotten?

    While the people working with the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters have been doing an exceptional job and the Governor deserves more credit than he’s been given for standing up to the (local and global) money idiots behind Twin Metals, Save the Boundary Waters and the Governor ought to consider adding another of Minnesota’s Crown Jewels and National Treasures to their list and efforts in a front-and-center way:

    Lake Superior

    “The world’s largest freshwater lake (31,700 square miles). 3,000,000,000,000,000 (3 quadrillion) gallons or 440 trillion cubic feet or 10% of the world’s fresh water. Enough to flood North and South America to one foot deep.” (And, ironically, sitting just up the road from Flint, Michigan)

    The Bigger Lake: NINETY percent of America’s freshwater!

    “About Great Lakes Areas of Concern (AOCs)

    “The Great Lakes is a premier national aquatic resource, containing approximately 90 percent of the U.S. supply of freshwater. The geography, surface area, and volume of this freshwater resource have great economic, ecological, and societal importance; making restoration, protection, and sustainable use of the lakes a national priority.

    “Areas of Concern (AOCS) are watersheds, or portions of watersheds, along the Great Lakes suffering from degraded environmental conditions stemming from historic and ongoing pollution [resulting in problems] such as restrictions on fish and wildlife consumption, beach closures, drinking water restrictions, loss of fish and wildlife habitat, etc.

    “A total of 43 AOCs have been identified in the U.S. and Canada: 26 located entirely within the U.S.; 12 located wholly within Canada; and five that are shared by both countries.”

    And this from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency:

    “St. Louis River Area of Concern

    “The St. Louis River was designated as an Area of Concern under the 1987 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. $30 million from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative’s Great Lakes Legacy Act program is being used to remediate and restore this AOC for removal from the binational list of AOC.”

    “About the St. Louis River and Bay AOC

    “The St. Louis River drains 3,634 square miles and enters the southwest corner of Lake Superior between Duluth, Minnesota, and Superior, Wisconsin. It became an Area of Concern on the Great Lakes under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement of 1987.

    “The area was considered highly degraded because of:

    — historical discharges

    — Superfund sites

    — high levels of contamination in river sediments

    — the bay receiving wastewater discharge from the local sanitation facility

    — landfill sites and other point-source dischargers have also contributed to the contamination”

    And, among several other excellent St. Louis River-related articles on MinnPost, there was this last April:

    “St. Louis River named one of 10 most endangered in nation over proposed mining in its headwaters”

    There’s no doubt the Boundary Waters is everything its most dedicated defenders, “everyday appreciators” and a huge percentage of Minnesotans think and say it is and there’s no doubt it deserves the highest level of protection it can be given (an end of end of term “Presidential Decree” wouldn’t be out of line, would it Adam?).

    But Lake Superior is no less incredible, important, deserving or in need of protection. And while there’s no doubt many fine people are working at that, it sometimes seems their efforts could use a “reinforced” level of focused attention and (mobilized) action similar to the kind the Boundary Waters has been receiving.

    A slightly less toxic version of the same kind of thing that COULD happen to the Boundary Waters HAS been happening to the headwaters of the St. Louis River and Lake Superior for decades. And if the Polymet project gets permitted (which the Dayton administration’s DNR and the IRRRB seem hell bent on) sulfide WILL be dripping, leaking, flowing into the western end of 90% of America’s freshwater supply before that huge pro-Boundary Waters majority of Minnesotans know what happened.

    Anyone in our state (or the world at-large) who doesn’t think that’s a monumentally bad idea ought to consider canceling this year’s Boundary Waters (or general) vacation plans, book a room in a Flint Michigan hotel and spend that time walking around and asking the people who live there what they think about that (“job creating, money-making bonanza”) idea instead.

  5. Submitted by Jean Cole on 03/28/2016 - 04:04 pm.

    Eyes wide open

    Adam – I’m so glad you enjoy your annual trip to the BWCAW. An annual visit, however, is not the way to understand a community or a region.

    We need good jobs, not low-paying tourism jobs. How about you help us out – start a business up here, employ a bunch of folks, give them benefits and a pension. That’s what we need! Easy peasy, right?

    Please read the opinion pieces I link to below, written by people with an understanding of Ely and of the region. Thanks for attempting to have an “eyes wide open” viewpoint.,12591?content_source=&category_id=7&search_filter=&event_mode=&event_ts_from=&list_type=&order_by=&order_sort=&content_class=&sub_type=stories&town_id=

    • Submitted by Bill Willy on 03/28/2016 - 05:57 pm.

      No “outsider” understands (anything)

      In its Environmental Impact Statement, Polymet said two extra-interesting things:

      1) The waste and run-off water at its mine site (smack dab in the middle of the St. Louis River’s watershed) would need to be captured, contained and treated for a minimum of 200 years and the water at its Hoyt Lakes processing plant would need to be contained and treated for a minimum of 500 years (or a lot of really poisonous stuff definitely WOULD flow into the water system)

      2) Their (lowball) estimation of the cost of that ranges from $3 million to $6 million per year

      When a person does the arithmetic on those numbers and the total income 300 jobs paying $80,000 per year for 20 years would generate, it turns out treating the water would cost one and a-half to three times more than the total those jobs would pay: The jobs would generate less than $1 billion while treating the water would cost at least $1.5 billion and as much as $3 billion (and that’s not figuring-in hundreds of year’s worth of inflation).

      So the question is, who would pay for treating that water?

      Polymet? Right now they have about $25 million in assets (the rusted-out Hoyt Lakes plant), over $100 million in “operating deficits” and their “Market Capitalization” (stock) value is less than $300 million. So anyone who believes they’ll foot the bill needs to name one company that has been in business in the U.S. (or the entire world, far as that goes) for 500 years. Or, easier, anyone who believes Polymet will be around 480 years after they’re done mining need only name one mining company that has been in business and maintained a mine site (anywhere) just 100 years after that mine has stopped producing. (Chances are they wouldn’t be paying for that water treatment.)

      Would the people (or descendants of the people) who benefit from those $80,000 per year jobs sign a binding legal contract to cover the costs without any “outside help” if Polymet went out of business or anything went wrong over those 500 years? (Probably not, right?)

      Or would it be ALL future taxpayers of Minnesota? (Most likely option, no?)

      And that’s just the cost of “water treatment” for hundreds of years. It doesn’t include the cost of trying to deal with cleaning up whatever “acceptable levels of pollution” that definitely would occur (as pointed out by the DNR and Polymet) during mining or at any point in the 500+ year future.

      Are MN mining companies paying for cleanup of the pollution they’ve already caused (and continue to cause right up to right now) or are those costs being covered by taxpayers?

      I understand why people lucky enough to be able to live in the area want to live there. Boundary Waters or not, it’s one of the most beautiful places in the state: “God’s Country” at its best is right out the door or no more than a 20 or 30 minute drive away.

      And when you throw in the prospect of being able to make $75,000 to $80,000 (and more) working a 40-hour job, who WOULDN’T want to live there? There are a LOT of people in Minnesota (and lots of other places) who’d LOVE to be able to do that. Most people living in “outstate” MN working 40-hour jobs would be thrilled to make half that much.

      But while that “basic desire” is understandable, what ISN’T understandable is just about every “Iron Range jobs, jobs, jobs!” advocate’s refusal to discuss or give any kind of real consideration to what the reality of sulfide in the water system would mean, do, cost, et cetera. No “jobs advocate” will even admit it’s a possibility.

      No. That’s not important. What’s important is less than 5,000 out of Minnesota’s 5,000,000 being able to make a (real good) living in a beautiful place and that seems to be all that matters. And if, by chance, doing that leads to poisoning the Boundary Waters or Lake Superior and EVERYone who lives in Minnesota winds up having to pay for trying to cope with that, “Oh well.”

  6. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 03/28/2016 - 09:33 pm.

    Well, where would you have it then ?

    It’s a demand by you, as well as all other modern consumers.

    Whatever we have or make is literally dug out of the ground, either as crops or minerals.

    Including your electric cars, solar panels and wind turbines.

    And because you love northern Minnesota (and your ability to leisure there), you will squeeze the demand balloon and push the demand to places where the residents do not have the understanding, power and resources to do things right and protect the places they love.


    • Submitted by Todd Adler on 03/29/2016 - 12:33 pm.


      Your position isn’t exactly a resounding endorsement of mining practices. In essence, you’re saying the article is spot-on when it comes to the pollution portion of the equation and people have a right to be concerned about this plan. None of these industrial mines have ever come out the other end of the production cycle without also producing huge amounts of toxic waste. And, quite frankly, that gives people a lot of pause.

      Maybe someday we can develop mining techniques that can store and mitigate the pollution. But that day is not today.

  7. Submitted by Mike martin on 03/28/2016 - 10:01 pm.

    Where will the Copper Come from for wind turbines?

    The author shows his bias immediately by calling the mining by its byproduct not by its product.

    Where should the 8,000 pounds of copper needed for each & every wind turbine the author is so fond of come from.

    The author and all the people opposed to to copper mining never ever say where copper for wind turbines should be mined. They never say why some other place is a better place.

    Maybe he wants to ban dairy farming because cow manure produces lots of methane gas; which is 25 times worse for the environment that carbon dioxide.

  8. Submitted by Anthony Walsh on 03/29/2016 - 10:28 am.

    Why Worry

    Neal and Mike are right. There’s a worldwide shortage of copper. Our economy is suffering. New wind turbines and new i-phones are sooooooooo expensive, this just can’t go on. Our national economy and security may be at stake.

    The future generations of taxpayers can afford to pay to clean up the pollution. The conservative estimate is only 500 years. Better yet, we could do just like at other sites, and pretend it’s not really there. Somebody else’s problem, right?

    Another idea is since the “locals” know what’s best, maybe the locals can pay to clean up the mess, practically indefinitely, when the spun-off mining company finally goes belly-up after all the profits have crossed the ocean.

    Because apparently, it’s just a problem for selfish people that just want to “leisure” in the BWCA.

  9. Submitted by Bill Willy on 03/29/2016 - 04:22 pm.

    More on the worldwide shortage

    When it comes to the questions of “Where?” here’s a short list of possibilities: Chile, Peru, Indonesia, Arizona, Mongolia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

    And even though I hate to go all conservative Republican free market capitalism orthodoxy, when it comes to the question of, “Will the copper mines in those places be able to keep up with the demand for wind turbine and smart phone parts?” for those who’ve missed it, the Key Word in the Copper Corner of InvestmentWorld for the past eight or nine months has been:


    The long and short is the world is has sooooooooooo much copper on-hand that copper mines (and iron ore mines like the ones on the Range) are being (have been) shut down left and right and “industry experts” are saying there won’t be “demand balance” until sometime next year and it will take until 2020 for a “demand deficit” of 500,000 tons to develop.

    500,000 tons is nothing. Glencore (Polymet’s financial lifeline and only reason for existence) has cut production at its African copper mines by 400,000 tons and while one of the biggest, Glencore is just one of the global copper sharks that have done smaller versions of the same thing.

    So even though the experts are saying demand will outstrip supply again by 2020 it won’t take long for the mining giants of the world to gobble that up by reopening a few of their currently idle mines.

    And then there are the Whales that are Going BIG even though the market’s in the tank. As the Wall Street Journal put it in January –

    “Supermines Add to Supply Glut of Metals”

    Interesting as can be article if you’re interested in the “Where?” and “What about wind mills and cell phones?” questions.

    Little things going on at the “supermine” like $6 billion “budget overruns” resulting in the layoff of 85,000 people . . . Kind of like the layoffs on the Range, only 17 times as many people as all the people in working in the entire Range mining industry being laid off on account of a $6 billion budgeting error at just one mine (in Peru, I think it was).

    But hey . . . Don’t worry about stuff like that. We, the Range, the nation and the world NEED Polymet, its 300 jobs and all the copper it would produce for wind mills and smartphones we might not be able to get anywhere else.

    Or, looked at another way, when it comes to the supply side economics involved and all the (closed) copper mines in the world and those (new and improved) “supermines” that are still open, pumping out copper and employing and laying off 85,000 people at a time, Minnesota needs a copper mine like it needs malaria or a taxpayer-funded High Capacity White Elephant Retirement Zoo.

    Here are some related links for those curious as to what role Global Economics may be playing in the current installment of Polymet’s 10-year struggle to help Minnesota decision makers see the light:

    “Iron ore, copper oversupply here to stay, so get used to it — BHP’s Mackenzie”

    “Miners Are Cutting Production to Cope with Low Copper Prices”

    “At the beginning of September, GLENCORE (GLEN) announced its plans to close its Mopani operations in Zambia and the Katanga mine in Congo for a minimum of 18 months. This shutdown of African mines would reduce the company’s copper production by 400,000 tons, which is almost 20% of its annual production.”

    And . . .

    “Why did Glencore fall 17.5%?”

    “Why Does Freeport Expect a 500,000 Ton Copper Deficit by 2020?”

    Hope that helps.

    (And by the way, Mike . . . Still waiting for that short list of copper mines anywhere in the world that have been developed and operated in a non-polluting, environmentally friendly way.)

  10. Submitted by Anthony Walsh on 03/30/2016 - 10:39 am.

    Those who forget the past..

    “After the Roman era, the Visigoths allowed Riotinto to go dormant, though the mines did experience a small-scale resurrection during the Islamic Period (particularly the 10th through 13th centuries). They weren’t rediscovered until 1556, when a priest named Diego Delgado set out to search for new mines at the behest of Spain’s King Phillip II.

    When Diego Delgado, the Spanish priest, came upon Riotinto in 1556, he reported to King Felipe II, “In this river there is no type of fish nor living creature, and neither people nor animals drink these waters.” Even today, the Tinto and Odiel rivers are poisoned with arsenic and metals.”

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