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At issue in Minnesota’s sulfide mining debate: environmental justice

It is just as important to protect the waters of the St. Louis River watershed as it is the Rainy River Basin. There is de facto racism in placing the romantic attachment of outdoor enthusiasts to the BWCA over the interests of the Ojibwe.

Wild rice on Itasca Lake
A treaty guaranty of rice gathering is meaningless if there is no rice to harvest.

In my earlier Community Voices piece responding to Gov. Tim Walz’s interview with Walker Orenstein about sulfide mining, there was an issue unexpressed because of space limitations: environmental justice for the Lake Superior Ojibwe bands. It may be the most important part, though.

Many people are trying to distinguish between the PolyMet and Twin Metals projects. That includes Tom Landwehr, who signed the PolyMet permit to mine when he was the DNR commissioner, but who argued in a May 24 Star Tribune commentary against the Twin Metals sulfide mine. The proposed Twin Metals processing facility is 12 miles from the proposed PolyMet mine pits. Landwehr correctly identified the ills associated with a sulfide mine (“A direct and certain consequence of such mining would be water and air pollution; destruction of the forest and wetland habitat of fish, mammals and birds …”) and the weakness of Minnesota law – including, presumably, the DNR’s non-ferrous mining rules – to address them, but his attempts to distinguish PolyMet and Twin Metals are entirely specious.

Parenthetically, the Minnesota DNR’s rules for non-ferrous mining are vague and weak and without standards. It’s not surprising that Landwehr would be worried about them. The Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy has petitioned the Supreme Court for a review of a Court of Appeals judgment affirming the validity of the rules. Do we want to be governed by laws and standards or the whim of whoever is in charge? We’ve seen recently what that leads to.

‘Pristine’ vs. ‘industrial’?

Landwehr waxed romantic and called the BWCA a sacred, virginal, pristine wilderness and everywhere else “an industrial mining district.” The Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, and many others, would disagree with that, however.

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If you go to the Boundary Waters, you will see the very occasional magnificent white pine that towers above the rest. They’re the virgins; most of the Boundary Waters is second growth. The big trees were just too little to mess with back when the area was logged off. Imagine what the place looked like with giant stands of white pine.

So, the Boundary Waters was an industrial district once, too. But this artificial distinction without a difference has caused some people, including the organization that Landwehr now heads, to abandon the St. Louis River watershed and offer it, practically speaking, as a sacrifice to the mining interests.

Steve Timmer
Steve Timmer
The supposed difference between PolyMet and Twin Metals is the Laurentian Divide. The two proposed projects are on opposite sides of the divide: PolyMet on the St. Louis River watershed side, where water flows to Lake Superior, and Twin Metals on the Rainy River basin side, flowing near and through the BWCA to Hudson’s Bay. The Laurentian Divide only describes what happens to the surface water, however.

The Laurentian Divide does not explain what happens to groundwater. According to the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, in a 2015 report, groundwater pollution from a PolyMet mine operation would also flow north into the Boundary Waters. It is reported in the linked Timberjay article that the DNR acknowledged that the GLIFWC could be right.

Watersheds are equally important to protect

This is all beside the point, though. Divide-the-baby faux environmentalism is distasteful. It is just as important to protect the waters of the St. Louis River watershed as it is the Rainy River Basin. There is de facto racism in placing the romantic attachment of outdoor enthusiasts to the BWCA over the interests of the Ojibwe and the manoomin, the Ojibwe word for wild rice. Perhaps the manoomin and the indigenous industry it supports are even more important.

In the grocery store, a pound of wood-parched Ojibwe wild rice goes for about $10 a pound, the same as a pound of grass-fed ground beef from southern Minnesota, and it has a much smaller carbon footprint.

Wild rice gathering in the Ceded Territories is guaranteed to the Ojibwe by treaty. That includes the St. Louis watershed.

Copper mining kills wild rice. A treaty guaranty of rice gathering is meaningless if there is no rice to harvest.

Mining enthusiasts say that the benefits of mining outweigh the environmental risk and harm. But the benefits and the risk and harm are not equally distributed. The mining supporters want to play poker with other people’s money, including that of the Fond du Lac Band of Ojibwe.

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There are already two Superfund sites on the St. Louis River. One of them is called the U.S. Steel site. If Landwehr is right about the inevitability of pollution from a sulfide mine – and he is – the PolyMet mine threatens not only the wild rice but the decades-long cleanup efforts already undertaken on the St. Louis watershed and estuary.

Equity demands equal concern for and protection of both sides of the Laurentian Divide.

Steve Timmer is retired after practicing law in the Twin Cities for over 40 years. His Twitter handle is @stevetimmer.

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