The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is a national treasure. Encompassing over a million acres and 1,200 lakes, with hundreds of miles of rivers and portage trails, there’s little wonder why it’s the most visited wilderness area in the United States. Proportionate to its grandeur is the controversy over the proposed copper-sulfide mine Twin Metals has sought to build at the doorstep of the wilderness.
Clean water advocates and scientists have warned that such a mine would be an environmental disaster waiting to happen, while mining advocates claim it will bring jobs to the region and be a domestic source of copper and nickel.
Spanning three presidential administrations, almost a decade of headlines, lawsuits and tens of thousands of people speaking up for this special place, last week the Biden administration made a crucial move toward a 20-year moratorium on sulfide mining on 225,000 acres of federal land surrounding the Boundary Waters.
Part of this involves resuming a two-year study into the impact of copper-sulfide mining in the Boundary Waters. This study was abruptly canceled by the Trump administration and its findings hidden from the public.
The announcement is a move in the right direction and may reverse the shameless handouts the Trump administration gave to the Chilean mining company that owns Twin Metals. It may also prevent a potential economic and environmental disaster.
The science says it’s a bad idea
In 2016, the Department of the Interior allowed two mineral leases held by Twin Metals to expire because 1) There was overwhelming public opposition to the planned mine. The people did not want it there. 2) There was nearly unanimous scientific consensus that a copper-sulfide mine in such a water-rich ecosystem would pose too great a risk.
The copper in these deposits is bound up in sulfide ore. You know how iron creates rust when exposed to oxygen or water? Well, sulfide ores create sulfuric acid when this happens. Chemically, this is the same as battery acid. Pulverizing tens of thousands of tons of sulfide bearing ore to extract trace amounts of copper would create an enormous amount of acid mine drainage.
This inherent danger is underlined by the fact that no copper-sulfide mine has operated without polluting the surrounding water supply. In a water-rich environment like northeastern Minnesota, the network of interconnected waterways would cause the acid mine drainage to spread hundreds of miles beyond the mine.
Do we really want an industry the EPA has listed as the most polluting industry in the United States next to so much clean water?
A shameless handout
After Twin Metals’ mineral leases expired and their plans for a proposed mine ground to a halt, Donald Trump was elected president. Almost immediately, Antofagasta — the Chilean mining conglomerate that owns Twin Metals — began courting a more industry-friendly administration. The billionaire owner of Antofagasta bought a mansion in Washington, D.C., to rent it to Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner. In addition, FOIA requests show multiple meetings between officials from Antofagasta and the Department of the Interior. Without much effort, the Trump administration reinstated the mineral leases, clearing the way for Antofagasta to open their mine.
This move was arbitrary, capricious and a favor to the Chilean-owned mining company. Shortly after this, the administration canceled the scientific study into the effects copper-sulfide mining would have on the Rainy River watershed and, when compelled to release the findings, redacted the entire study.
This was all to the delight of the copper-mining industry.
The economic reality
Of the many reasons to oppose Twin Metals and copper-sulfide mining near the Boundary Waters is that it would hurt the region’s economy.
Several years ago, a study out of Harvard University concluded that allowing copper-sulfide mining near the BWCA would bring an initial burst of short-term growth, but these initial benefits would quickly be outweighed by the negative economic impacts mining would have on the region.
Sulfide mining would hurt not only the sustainable, wilderness-based economy, but the overall economy as well.
There is a rich heritage of iron mining in northeastern Minnesota, but today, mining makes up 1% of the state’s economy and only 4% of St. Louis County’s economy. New industries are taking its place, including the nation’s second-largest solar panel manufacturing plant near Virginia, and a vibrant wilderness economy that encompasses outfitters, manufacturers, hospitality and more. A toxic mine would threaten this sustainable economy.
Twin Metals’ proposed mine would be bad for the economy and bad for the environment. And the way in which the multibillion-dollar mining conglomerate used money and backdoor meetings to work its way around science, the public and the legal process, it would be bad for democracy.
Let’s celebrate this win for clean water, for the Boundary Waters and for the state of Minnesota.
Scott Beauchamp is the policy director for Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, an organization that has advocated for the Boundary Waters for 45 years.