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Protect the BWCA: The stakes are high

photo of sunset over lake in boundary waters
As the most-visited wilderness area in the U.S., the Boundary Waters epitomizes the nation’s interest in appreciating the natural elements and upholding environmental biodiversity.

photo of article author
Photo by Laura Gregory
Kiwa Anisman
Beginning with the creation of Yellowstone National Park in 1892, the American people have guided the international effort to appreciate and preserve the natural beauty surrounding us. This initiative has encouraged the United States to see the intrinsic value and benefits of protecting national forests, reserves, and wilderness areas. Even more so, as the state known for its expansive and pure bodies of water, Minnesota has devoted itself to maintaining its valuable sources of water and biodiversity. However, as a result of recent Trump administration decisions, the protection of an invaluable wilderness area, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA), has been compromised.

Despite our nation’s interest in exploring the beautiful outdoors, continual adherence to the principles of capitalism has encouraged the exploitation of resources for personal economic gain. Amidst these competing circumstances, only one victor can emerge. Based on the crucial setbacks during the Trump administration regarding environmental protection, the current policies being upheld suggest that the Boundary Waters might succumb to the avarice of mining interests. Without attempts to implement more protective regulations, the opportunities for posterity to enjoy this pristine and untainted wilderness area might be dwindling.

The territory has been threatened before, but not to the current extent. Beginning in the 1960s, companies and groups interested in timber extraction and recreational activities, such as motor use, gained momentum and were permitted to continue some activity under the 1964 Wilderness Act. Fortunately, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act was passed in 1978, which, as Richard Moe reminded us in a recent op-ed, “expanded its size, restricted motorboat use, ended logging and banned mining in the wilderness and some adjacent lands.” Despite the momentous step in the right direction four decades ago, economic gain has inspired companies to continue fighting for access to the lucrative sulfide-based metals.

‘Absolutely the wrong place …’

In 2014, the Forest Service began a review to determine the impact of copper mining in the region. According to Tom Tidwell, chief of the U.S. Forest Service at the time, “The review process proved conclusively that the watershed of the Boundary Waters is absolutely the wrong place for this type of mining.” Because the minerals being sought after are found within sulfide-containing ore, exposure to air and water can form sulfuric acid, causing irreversible damage and contamination to nearby waterways.

As a result of the review strongly disapproving of mining activities, in 2016 the Obama administration denied the renewal of mineral leases to Twin Metals Minnesota, a Chilean-owned mining company seeking to extract copper and nickel from a portion just a few miles away from the Boundary Waters territory. The administration concluded that the “inherent potential risk that development of a regionally untested copper-nickel sulfide ore mine within the same watershed as the BWCA might cause serious and irreplaceable harm to this unique, iconic, and irreplaceable wilderness area.” The Obama administration also ordered an even more thorough study on the impact of mining on the area to be conducted, which would place a 20-year moratorium on mining activity.

But those victories were ephemeral. Decisions of the Trump administration have reversed the protective measures that currently deny mining privileges in the Boundary Waters territory. In May 2018, the Trump administration disregarded the conclusions of the review process beginning in 2014 and reinstated the Twin Metal leases to mine within the watershed. Even worse, in September 2018, the Trump administration stopped the study that would have placed a 20-year ban on mining, invalidating significant progress made to protect the Boundary Waters territory from environmental degradation and contamination.

Might set a precedent

As the most-visited wilderness area in the U.S., the Boundary Waters epitomizes the nation’s interest in appreciating the natural elements and upholding environmental biodiversity. If we make choices to jeopardize the protection of such a treasured stretch filled with lakes, forests and wetlands, what does that mean for the future of other lesser-known public lands that contain opportunities for mining or otherwise lucrative activities? Allowing mining activities near the Boundary Waters territory might set precedent for other protected lands to be subject to similar environmental damage.

Leaving a once pristine, historic expanse vulnerable to nearby mining would forever affect the beauty and value of this wilderness area. If contamination occurs at a level of any magnitude, the interlinked bodies of water, from groundwater to rivers and lakes, will never return to a pure, untainted watershed. If extracting resources from fragile ecosystems indeed has adverse consequences for the environment, we must proceed cautiously and conduct more comprehensive research as to mining’s potential impact on the environment.

By voting in elections, calling state legislators, and supporting environmental advocacy organizations such as Save the Boundary Waters and Environment Minnesota, we can contribute to the national campaign to protect our ecosystems. Through active participation and coalition building, we can raise awareness and demand that our government adopt a similar dedication to the reinstatement of environmental sustainability and justice. The choice is ours, and the time is now.

Kiwa Anisman is a first-year student at Macalester College who plans to study political science and environmental studies.

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Comments (19)

  1. Submitted by joe smith on 04/12/2019 - 11:32 pm.

    Follow the law, well… it’s the law. If Polymet passes the permitting process they, by law, are able to mine. I’m sure Ms Anisman has great intentions but I am also sure she is not a chemical engineer, has a degree in forestry or has any expertise in the mining business. The folks making the decisions on Polymet permits are experts in the field and once Polymet passes the process, by law, you have to let them mine.

    • Submitted by David Lundeen on 04/13/2019 - 06:36 pm.

      The folks running Polymet are going to mine, leave a toxic legacy for Minnesotans, and then stick us with the tax bill.

      • Submitted by Mary Fernstrum on 04/14/2019 - 11:54 am.

        MNSTOP Minnesota Taxpayers Oppose PolyMet / Twin Metals two miles, one threat to the Boundary Waters, Lake Superior, and St Louis River. Dam fail, dam leakage is poison and would flow into these waters. MN Taxpayers will pay the bill for centuries.

  2. Submitted by Betsy LePlatt on 04/13/2019 - 09:13 am.

    Thank you for the fine article.

    In rebuttal to the above comment, Ms. Anisman is not proposing defying the law or usurping any research by qualified scientists. She is, in fact, advocating for the time for study, not hasty decisions, driven by political and commercial interests.

  3. Submitted by Sheryl Casey on 04/13/2019 - 10:55 am.

    I have a degree in chemistry from Carleton and over 30 years experience in the chemical profession. The real problem here is that the technical issues are being blurred by politics. The thirst for jobs is blinding people to the risks. All mining is not equal. The chemistry fundamentals of sulfide mining are well known and documented. I understand the chemistry, the risks, and know how businesses work. The track record of sulfide mining is very poor. I am not against Taconite mining, but Sulfide mining will have a huge negative impact. PolyMet’s own permit application includes the discharge of toxic waste into the environment for centuries. It takes that long because they can only discharge so much in best case scenarios to meet the outdated and inadequate requirements.

    One of the biggest issues is that the discharge from this mining converts mercury to a state that builds up in the environment. Once unleashed, it does not degrade. It does not go away. Mercury levels are already rising in children living in the Lake Superior/St. Louis Water watershed. There are already fish advisories due to rising mercury levels. The geology of this region is rock. The result is there is little buffering capacity which means that small amounts of mercury will have a big impact. This region can not chemically tolerate or absorb the wastes from this mining.

    Kiwi Anisman is correct that this region is the “absolute worst” for silfide mining. Northern Minnesota, where three watersheds converge, is no place for this mining. It is the headwaters from where our waters flow into Lake Superior, the boundary waters into Canada, and the Mississippi. This is the source of fresh water for millions of people. We can not allow this water to be contaminated because of a flawed, political process that allowed PolyMet permitting to occur.

    In short, sulfide mining is a bad process in the worst area. PolyMet must be stopped. Thank-you Kiwi Anisman for your article!

    • Submitted by joe smith on 04/13/2019 - 08:13 pm.

      There are laws on the books that copper mining is legal once you pass certain requirements. How are you going to stop Polymet if they meet the standards set by the state of Minnesota? Your neighbor gets a building permit to build a house that blocks your view of sunsets, you don’t like it but you can’t stop him from building. It is the law.

      • Submitted by David Lundeen on 04/14/2019 - 09:07 am.

        How are you going to explain to your grandchildren that environmental destruction was worth 200 jobs (most of which PolyMet filled with their own workers and automation, not area residents), 20 years of mining was a good exchange for centuries of environmental devastation, an increase in taxes to pay for the cleanup, and Northern Minnesota is back to the same jobs problem right after Polymet leaves?

        This entire plan is corporate socialism enabled by the government to enrich corporate executives, while the people of Minnesota are left with the devastation. And it’s a foreign company. Minnesota will never see a benefit for all that mining.

        • Submitted by joe smith on 04/14/2019 - 02:18 pm.

          I’ve been up here over 6 decades and am waiting for the mining industry to ruin the land as I was first told in the 60’s. I now grouse hunt on an old iron ore mine site, lots of birds. That site was supposedly going to ruined for thousands of years because miners had the audacity to dig ore out of it……. Heard the same song and dance before.

          • Submitted by David Lundeen on 04/14/2019 - 03:18 pm.

            If you took the time to read Sheryl Casey’s post you would know there is a difference. The mining difference between iron ore and copper / sulfide is starkly different due to some basic chemistry. But, there is not much in arguing over this with you Joe since you are resigned to one perspective only and don’t objectively consider anything else.

            • Submitted by joe smith on 04/15/2019 - 10:06 am.

              No David, I’ve lived up here and saw the same panic when they went from iron ore to taconite. The anti mining folks claimed the taconite process was much more toxic to the environment and would destroy the Range. Never happened. Seeing the same thing now.

              • Submitted by David Lundeen on 04/15/2019 - 10:21 am.

                Again, you didn’t read her post. As a chemist, and the type of expertise a mining company would rely on, she had a valid point. There is an acute difference between these types of mining.

                By disregarding scientific facts, and political/environmental consequences, your argument has no credibility in this debate.

                • Submitted by joe smith on 04/15/2019 - 01:05 pm.

                  Again no David, the experts, scientists, chemical engineers, Forestry agencies have put together a permitting process that Polymet must pass to begin mining. The experts have determined, by law, that when Polymet meets their standards, they can mine. You or the author don’t have to like the permitting experts as much as the doomsayer experts but the law is with the permitting experts.
                  I read her report and 50 others like it. Read about the Spotted Owl and it’s affect on the timber industry. Environmental group backed experts have been wrong before and will be again.

                  • Submitted by Brian Nelson on 04/16/2019 - 09:11 am.

                    Joe, I am not sure why you use Owls and Taconite as reasons PolyMet will or will not pollute. Has the Law, as you say, prevented pollution from the Dunka Pit from leaching into the environment? What should happen with a company (like Minntac) refuses to comply with a draft permit and then coerces the Iron Range Delegation to block that permit suit its needs?

                    What copper/nickel operation of this size and scale in this sort of an environment has opened and closed succeeded in not polluting its surrounding environment? Isn’t that what we should be talking about and not deflecting to owls?

                    • Submitted by joe smith on 04/18/2019 - 04:48 pm.

                      What copper/nickel plant has opened up with 2019 regulations? You can go back to plants opened 50-100 years ago if you would like but I will stick with 2019 regulations to protect environment.

                    • Submitted by Brian Nelson on 04/19/2019 - 09:57 am.

                      Joe, then how do we know that those regulations will work? You yourself even used past examples to try and support your arguments. And once I brought up clear examples you then move the goal posts and suggest that the past is irrelevant. Also, you missed my point. To what extent will the regulations actually be enforced? We know that once it comes down to “jobs” or enforcement that “jobs” will win every time.

  4. Submitted by Augur Flaneur on 04/14/2019 - 11:11 am.

    There are two keys to stopping this. The first you know, the Tribes. The second, you may not. How is the orr getting from the mine to the processing plant? Existing railroad? In open orr cars? What happens to the runoff from those orr cars when it rains during transit?

    I’m sure this has been addressed and assessed as a non issue. Or has it?

  5. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 04/14/2019 - 09:14 pm.

    Conflating iron mining with sulfide mining is either disingenuous or naive.

  6. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 04/14/2019 - 09:16 pm.

    When did we become some tin horn 3rd world country that let’s foreign operators come in and spoil our land while exporting the profit?

    True patriots should oppose this.

    America first!

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