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Two big setbacks for efforts to mine copper beside the Boundary Waters

Photo by Jim Gerold/Courtesy of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers
This photo, which took top honors in the last members' photo contest sponsored by Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, demonstrates that the constituency of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is broader than birders, backpackers and silence-seeking paddlers.

The prospects for saving the Boundary Waters from centuries of toxic mine drainage have grown considerably brighter this week with the disclosure of two documents concerning Twin Metals Minnesota’s efforts to dig copper- and nickel-bearing sulfide ores at the edge of this treasured wilderness.

Late Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Interior’s solicitor released a letter conveying its findings that Twin Metals has no automatic right to renew key mineral leases that were issued 50 years ago and lapsed at the end of 2013.

The letter, addressed to the Bureau of Land Management, advises that the BLM’s director has discretion to grant or deny the company’s renewal applications — which sets the stage for a review of mining impacts based on current science and environmental standards, not those in force when the leases were first issued in 1966.

A day earlier, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton released a letter he had written to Twin Metals to state his “grave concerns” about the inescapable risks of mining in the Boundary Waters watershed. The letter announced two important actions Dayton has taken to protect a place he describes as “a crown jewel in Minnesota and a national treasure”:

  • Overruling his Department of Natural Resources in directing that it stop allowing Twin Metals to lease or otherwise access state lands for exploratory drilling and other mining-related activity.
  • Contacting the BLM director to state his “strong opposition to mining in closely proximity to the BWCAW.”

Dayton’s letter was dated Sunday and addressed to Twin Metals’ chief operating officer, Ian Duckworth. It makes plain that his opposition is not about any particular company or mining approach:

I am not questioning the qualifications of either Twin Metals or its parent company Antofagasta PLC. Rather my concern is for the inherent risks associated with any mining operation in close proximity to the BWCAW and my concern about the State of Minnesota’s actively promoting advancement of such operations by permitting access to state lands.

As you know the BWCAW is a crown jewel in Minnesota and a national treasure. It is the most visited wilderness in the eastern U.S., and a magnificently unique assemblage of forest and waterbodies, an extraordinary legacy of wilderness adventure, and the home to iconic species like moose and wolves. I have an obligation to ensure it is not diminished in any way. Its uniqueness and fragility require that we exercise special care when we evaluate significant land use changes in the area, and I am unwilling to take risks with that Minnesota environmental icon.

Since both the proposed mining and the threatened natural area are wholly within the state that Dayton governs, I think we can fairly assume that the governor’s position will receive considerable deference in Washington.

And if there’s anything more that Twin Metals’ various challengers could ask of Dayton at this juncture, well, I’m at a loss to think what it might be.

Compare: Twin Metals vs. PolyMet

Because Twin Metals’ plans still receive only a fraction of the mainstream media coverage devoted to PolyMet Mining Corp.’s NorthMet project, which won a critical DNR endorsement last week, let us pause to consider a few points of comparison.

PolyMet has produced detailed plans in support of its proposal to mine the NorthMet deposit over a period of 20 years. Portions of the project, including an old taconite-processing plant that would be repurposed for precious metals, are in or near areas where iron mining and other industrial activity had previously taken place.

Undisturbed terrain would also be affected, and most if not all of the acidic, metals-laden water that escaped containment would flow toward Lake Superior; there has been discussion lately as to whether some might move north toward the BWCAW if certain unfortunate conditions occurred.

Twin Metals considers that it is about seven years behind PolyMet in the planning process, and while it has been conducting exploratory drilling and prepared a preliminary feasibility study, it has yet to put forward anything approaching a formal mine plan. Informally, it has discussed the concept of an underground mine on the scale of a small city beneath Birch Lake.

Courtesy of Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness
Areas highlighted in purple are state lands to which Dayton has denied access for exploratory drilling and other mining-related activity by Twin Metals Minnesota. (Click for larger version. [PNG, 7MB])

The Birch Lake deposit is one of four at the edge of the wilderness to which the company has rights, and it routinely speaks of inaugurating 100 years of precious-metals mining there. Sometimes it suggests that it might find a way to store waste rock from the Birch Lake operation on the same side of the Laurentian Divide as PolyMet’s disposal sites, but the mines themselves (and potentially much waste material) would be on the Boundary Waters side of the divide.

That means the natural flow of acid drainage from the Twin Metals operations would be toward the BWCAW, and then toward Voyageurs National Park and Ontario’s Quetico Provincial Park; together, these three public properties comprise 2.3 million acres of wilderness where scars of past extractive activity, never very numerous, have largely faded away.

That single fact has now galvanized a national Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, led by Becky Rom of Ely and Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness.

In a telephone conference convened yesterday to praise Dayton’s letter (but before the solicitor’s letter became public), Rom summarized the scale of Twin Metals’ potential impact this way: an 8,000-acre industrial site, producing waste rock sufficient to bury 123 football fields nearly 800 feet deep.

67% of Minnesotans opposed

Rom was joined on the call by a pollster reporting results of a statewide survey last month that found 67 percent of Minnesotans “oppose sulfide mining in areas near the Boundary Waters wilderness,” with only 15 percent in favor.

Also on the call were representatives of the National Wildlife Federation and, just to make clear that the breadth of the BWCAW’s appeal is broader than birders and solitude-seeking paddlers, a spokesman for Backcountry Hunters and Anglers of Missoula, Montana.

The latter, Land Tawney, noted that his organization’s last annual members’ photo contest gave top honors to an iconic image of a big whitetail buck harvested in the Boundary Waters on a perfect, snowy day in late autumn. (In a phone chat afterward, Tawney identified the winner as Jim Gerold of Prior Lake.)

After the conference I called Rom to follow up on a few topics. I wondered about the actual practical impact of Dayton’s decision to stop allowing access to state lands in the area, which are scattered across the region and constitute a fairly small area compared to the territory already covered by mineral leases present, pending or up for review.

I suppose that’s a logical question because the governor can only control access to state lands, but it’s hard to look at this in isolation. He is also saying there’s going to be a BLM decision that provides further guidance, and I think that will be announcement of an environmental assessment.

The BLM process is going to look at the whole array of science – ecosystem science, the science of sulfide mining, what happens when you put them together – and at the end of the day there will be a decision on whether this is an acceptable location or not.

So that assessment will be different than with PolyMet, because it is about location – not about a mine plan, because there is no mine plan. It’s about whether we should renew these leases for sulfide mining in this place. And in his letter, the governor has answered that question for himself.

I also asked Rom for her thoughts on Twin Metals’ standard assertion that the drilling activities for which Dayton is denying access to state lands are fairly unobtrusive operations, and essential to the company’s preparing an environmentally responsible mining plan.

The activities that they’ve been conducting in the national forest lands have been quite disruptive and harmful both to the lands themselves and to the [neighboring] wilderness. Preliminary drilling has been occurring within about a quarter-mile of the wilderness boundary in the Gabbro-Bald Eagle Lake area, which is managed as primitive.

They were drilling there well into July, in 2013 or 2014, and people who were camping in that part listened to what sounded like a jet engine 24 hours a day, nonstop, for two weeks. That’s a big intrusion on a wilderness experience. And that’s just a simple drill rig.

So imagine a very large industrial mining site at any of these deposits, and everything that goes with it. And I didn’t get to this on the call because you can only cover so much: there are 29 resorts, outfitters and campgrounds in this area. Hundreds of homes and cabins.

There will be tremendous economic and social disruption. This isn’t a mine in a desert in the middle of nowhere.

Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Joe Smith on 03/09/2016 - 10:47 am.

    The good news is the BWCA is a huge area and if you want peace and quiet you can get it by canoeing a few lakes over from drilling site take a wonderful portage of a few rods and have all the tranquility you would like. Take it from an old man who spent a lot of time in the BWCA before you needed permits to camp, when you could use your little 3 horse motor, stern mounted, to explore new lakes and didn’t need Ely based guides to get you around- there is peace and quiet in them there woods folks.

    There will be many reasons the anti-mining folks will site to not have Twin Metals up and running. Saying they are encroaching on BWCA peace and quiet is laughable as one.

    • Submitted by Phil Dech on 03/09/2016 - 12:25 pm.

      Are you being deliberately obtuse?

      This has nothing to do with peace and quiet, and everything to do with Boundary WATER., that you actually paddled in, fished from, and drank when you were up there. The mine, and potentially waste storage, is upstream in the Kawishiwi watershed. Anything that gets into the water from either source flows directly into BWCA, Voyageurs, and Quetico. The risk from those sources persists well after the mine ceases to be active, probably well after there is a Twin Metals Mining Company. That prospect is certainly not laughable.

  2. Submitted by Todd Adler on 03/09/2016 - 12:09 pm.


    Sound mitigation is only part of the mining issue in play here. We’re also looking at the prospect of huge amounts of sulfides in the water, which wouldn’t affect just a couple of acres of wilderness here and there. If that leaks into the surrounding watershed, then you have a serious problem that can easily spread across international boundaries, affecting millions of acres.

    To understate it, that would be sub-optimal.

    Looking at the sound issue though, mining will be a heck of a lot louder, larger, and affect more territory than just a drill head. Sure, you can tell people to just go elsewhere to get their solitude. But that sort of “I don’t care about your issues” go both ways, too. To wit, they can go mine elsewhere. I’m sure Twin Metals and its parent company have leases on deposits that aren’t near wildernesses. Go tap into those deposits instead.

    Another sound issue to consider: if you let Twin Metals mine next to the wilderness and create a nuisance, what’s to stop the next company from doing the same? They could make a case that because we let Twin Metals degrade the BWCA, they should get the same consideration.

    Again, that’s not positioning Minnesota for a positive long term outcome.

  3. Submitted by Charles Thompson on 03/09/2016 - 12:56 pm.


    If you look at Glencore’s recent financial ups and downs depending on them for decades long mitigation responsibility is a dangerous stretch.

  4. Submitted by Elanne Palcich on 03/09/2016 - 05:58 pm.


    So, is it OK to pollute the Lake Superior watershed then?
    If the issue is water, then Minnesota should enact a Wisconsin type of moratorium on sulfide mining–no mine shall be permitted unless it can show proof of a sulfide mine that has been closed for 10 years and is not polluting, and a sulfide mine that has been operating for 10 years without polluting–in a similar wetland type of environment.
    The bottom line is that Minnesota should not allow sulfide mining in its northeast wetland environment. Also note that the mineralization of the Duluth Complex is highly disseminated–meaning the metals are scattered throughout the ores/rocks, rather than in veins. This means that huge amounts of bedrock must be blasted, crushed, and ground in order to extract the metals. This is similar to taconite mining—which is currently in trouble in the marketplace. Taconite is approximately 25% iron, and the taconite pellets are refined to approximately 65% iron content, requiring huge amounts of electricity to operate the equipment needed for crushing, grinding, and pelletizing. This makes it more costly to produce than the natural ores now being mined in Australia and Brazil. (Our natural ores were basically depleted in World Wars I and II, and then in the establishment of the auto industry.)
    The sulfide ores in PolyMet’s proposed project contain less than 1% mineralization, thus creating more than 99% waste rock, much of which will be capable of toxic heavy metal leaching and acid mine drainage.
    In addition, the mining process uses water. So we are not only mining metals–we are mining clean sources of water, and returning treated or polluted water back into the environment. We obviously don’t know much about the treating part, because the taconite industry is emitting mercury and sulfates into the environment–with no good ways of cleaning up.
    Again, this issue concerns the Boundary Waters, but is more than the Boundary Waters. Do we want to keep Superior National Forest as an area of natural significance, or turn it into an industrial mining zone?

  5. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 03/09/2016 - 06:35 pm.

    In the wilderness

    “there are 29 resorts, outfitters and campgrounds in this area. Hundreds of homes and cabins.”

    How pristine.

    • Submitted by Phil Dech on 03/10/2016 - 09:35 pm.

      Have you been up there?

      There are certainly resorts, campgrounds, outfitters in the area, on the periphery of the BWCA, but not “in” it. You paddle/portage your “resort” in with you. The degree of luxury is determined by your willingness to carry it. The portages and designated camp sites are maintained by the US Forest Service. Otherwise, pristine is pretty accurate.

  6. Submitted by Mike martin on 03/09/2016 - 07:10 pm.

    Why can’t you call it by its correct name

    Ron why can’t use the correct name? Only a biased reporter uses the term “sulfide mining”.

    Name one other product or process that is referred to by its byproducts and not the actual product?

    I tolerate the term sulfide mining from environmentalist who are using emotions not facts to influence peoples opinions. but not from responsible reporters

    A pollster that uses the term “sulfide mining” is obviously biased and was hired by a group(s) opposed to precious metal mining.

    All the opponents of precious metal mine say Northern MN is a bad place. But I have never ever heard even one word about where a good place is or the best place is.

    If people say Northern MN is a bad place but refuse to name a good place, then why should responsible people pay any attention to them?

    The mining opponents refuse to say where the 8,000 lbs of copper required for each of large wind turbine, they love so much, should come from if it doesn’t come from Northern MN

    • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 03/10/2016 - 09:52 am.

      Good place, bad place: why pay any attention??

      We do not owe Twin Metals, Polymet, yourself, or any other mining proponent a road map to where you can mine with the approval of the locals. THAT is YOUR problem, not ours.

      We are raising our children and grandchildren here, and would like to responsibly care for the place for their future healthy enjoyment, so I will concede your point that we opponents can get a little emotional at times. This hits us right where we live.

      However, that does not mean that every point made in opposition is wild-eyed hysteria. There are entirely valid arguments against the risks of mining of this type. The “responsible” people you speak of would recognize that.

      And as to your objection about the language used, “sulfide mining” refers to the extracted material which must be processed in order to get just one of its final products, copper, that you would prefer in its name. The problem here is that copper is only one of the products of the process, and a vanishingly small proportion of the total output – overwhelmingly, crushed rock – which subsequently releases rather toxic materials. So the name is not really misleading, as far as I can tell. But maybe we should call it “sulfide mining for copper”, to distinguish it from other kinds of copper mining. There is a difference here.

      Finally, as to your ad hominem attack on the author, I think it’s only fair to ask Ron Measor himself to speak to this point.

      So: Ron, why don’t you tell the whole world right now whether you are shilling for some third party in opposition and being paid to do so??

    • Submitted by C.A. Arneson on 03/10/2016 - 10:34 pm.

      Its Correct Name

      “Sulfide mining” is just as accurate and accepted as non-ferrous, copper-nickel, polymetallic, or metallic sulfide mining (term used by the mining industry to encompass varied combinations of metals).

      The mining industry, particularly in Australia and Chile, uses the term “sulfide mining.” For mining proponents to object to the term sulfide mining is nonsensical, and only points out a lack of the simplest research.

      Australia refers to copper sulfide mining, nickel sulfide mining, zinc sulfide mining, etc., the mining of sulfide minerals, and simply sulfide mining. Chile (and Antofagasta) uses the term “sulfide” mine. Brian Gavin, CEO of Franconia Minerals before it was bought out by Duluth Metals, said, “Technically this is sulfide mining and naturally that’s going to raise environmental concerns.” Brain Gavin certainly had industry and geology credentials.

      Examples from Australia and Chile:
      “This paper seeks to analyse and contrast the environmental sustainability metrics of existing nickel production from sulfide mines with more recent laterite projects, ….” (Australia)

      “Rosebery is situated in the wet temperate sulfide-mining district of western Tasmania.”

      “Panoramic owns and operates the Savannah and Lanfranchi underground nickel sulphide mines in Western Australia…”

      “Los Pelambres is a sulfide mine located in the Region of Coquimbo, Chile, 240km to the northeast of Santiago. The mine is one of the ten largest copper mines on the planet and ranks fourth in Chile.

      And from Antofagasta’s home page, “About Us/Antofagasta Minerals:”
      Los Pelambres: “A sulfide mine located in the Region of Coquimbo, Chile, 240 kms to the north of Santiago. It produces copper and molybdenum concentrates through milling and flotation processes.
      Esperanza: A sulfide mine located in the Region of Antofagasta, Chile, 1,350 km to the north of Santiago. It produces copper concentrate and gold through a milling and flotation process.

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