Save the BWCA from Sulfide Mining

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This op-ed - published last year - is still relevant today as lawmakers and groups such as Save the Boundary Waters are still actively fighting the proposed sulfide-ore copper mining near the BWCA.

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area of northern Minnesota is one of the last untouched natural beauties in the world. The BWCA is the premier destination for people to get away from the concrete jungle that is modern civilization. Camps such as Camp Voyageur and others provide kids the opportunity to learn how to survive and navigate in the vast wilderness. My family members and peers have made their trips an annual outing to refresh their perspective amidst the backdrop of bluffs and wide-open lakes. Loons and Bald Eagles, species once considered endangered due to neglectful environmental policies of the past, fly and swim liberally around your canoe.

The PolyMet mining corporation of Canada aims to open a precious metals sulfide mine in Hoyt Lakes, MN near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. If opened, the potential for sulfide pollution is practically guaranteed, as shown by sulfide mines in the past. Sulfide mining in the BWCA must never be attempted due to the potential for pollution, deforestation, and species endangerment. The short-term economic gain is not worth permanent damage to the land and lakes of northern Minnesota.

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Sulfide mining is the process of drilling through waste rock on the surface to reveal sulfide-bearing materials. Once the sulfide is revealed, ore such as copper and nickel rests inside. Metals such as platinum, palladium, and gold also have a chance of being revealed (Kelleher 3). The potential for precious metals is what is so appealing to mining companies such as PolyMet, as copper prices reached an all-time high in 2011 (Kelleher 3). The potential profits of the project are enough to make President Trump, Jeff Johnson, and other Republican lobbyists enthusiastic. The issue they fail to address, however, is how detrimental it is to lakes and streams in the surrounding area. The exposed sulfide rock, when rained on, discharges minerals into the surrounding rainwater, creating sulfuric acid. When collected in rainwater the runoff into streams and lakes causes damage to the water quality. Once the water quality is damaged, detriment towards fish species and drinking water for the surrounding area is almost guaranteed.

‘The acid changes the chemistry of lakes and waters and streams … kills fish and wildlife, kills the critters at the bottom of the food chain,’ Hanson says. ‘It lasts. It’s a persistent pollution. It just keeps oozing out these sulfur wastes for generations of time. So it creates a situation where you might have to collect all this waste and run a treatment plant forever.’ (Kelleher 3)

These are the words of Clyde Hanson, an environmentalist at the Sierra Club. His concerns resonate with him both as an activist and as a resident of Grand Marais. He’s not the only one unhappy with the proposal. Many environmentalists cite what is considered the “poster child of mining disasters” (Kelleher 3): the Summitville gold mine in southwestern Colorado. According to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, the mining procedure deforested a large area. The upturn of earth and topsoil lead to large-scale erosion. The danger of sulfuric acid runoff became realized when traces were discovered running into the Alamosa river system. The system is now unable to support life. If this kind of mining were allowed to occur within any vicinity of the lakes in the BWCA, the habitat loss would be immense. Towering trees reduced to mulch and dirt. Streams become oily pits. A loss in habitat of any modicum is a tragedy when considering this historic area. Imagine if your favorite campground or hiking trail was torn apart for mining purposes. Now all of a sudden a key part of your summer memories no longer exists. For residents of Hoyt Lakes, this proposal legitimately hits home, as their once quiet and serene forest town is now opened to new noise pollution many residents live up there to get away from. Once the Boundary Waters are deforested, no place feels sacred.

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Some GOP legislatures and lobbyists would argue the risks are minuscule compared to the economic benefit of the mine. According to PolyMet project director Don Hunter, “We’re doing it absolutely according to the rule book. And we’re working very close with the regulators – the DNR, the PCA, the Corps of Engineers – to make sure that everything we do goes through them, that they are happy with what we’re doing, and that it complies with the rules and legislation (Kelleher 3).” This kind of report is reassuring enough to lobbyists; “PolyMet’s project expects annual metal production of 39,000 tons of copper, 9,000 tons of nickel, 400 tons of cobalt, 22,000 ounces of platinum, 87,000 ounces of palladium and 13,800 ounces of gold from its lease (Westgard 4).” What the analyst’s fail to calculate is the price of shutting down the mine. If the company goes bankrupt during production, taxpayers are left anywhere from 9-235 million dollars in cleanup costs (examples taken from Summitville mine, Zortman- Landusky mine, and Gilt Edge mine). As production predictions have a chance of being wrong, the economic turnout is a lot less viable than initially thought. Any turnout comes at the expense of the land, as noted earlier. Taking this big of a risk with guaranteed small-scale deforestation is irresponsible.

Another factor to consider is job creation. The mine is set to create over 300 jobs in the surrounding area. However, only around 25% of those jobs are for residents around Hoyt Lake. Some employees are commuting from as far south as Duluth. The spread out nature of the employees means only around 50 jobs within a 30-mile radius of a community. Again, it is important to consider the deforestation and risk of lake contamination. 99% of damage is done just unearthing the sulfide, and that is after trees are cut down to make way for the mine. If any water pollution occurs, habitat loss for fish is guaranteed. Something else to consider, however, is drinking water for campers. When I took my trip up to the BWCA, I was filling as many water containers as I could and iodizing them to get rid of excess bacteria. A single tablet per 64 ounces of water is enough to make it safe to drink. If waters get polluted, the iodizing method will no longer be possible, thus making camping and overall tourism difficult. The cycle is set to continue by lack of demand for park rangers and tour guides, and overall permit purchases will go down due to lack of tourists. While mining could benefit the mining economy and everyone involved with the project, lack of tourism in the future could deter income into the park system. There is a chance mining could be more profitable, but it comes at the expense of everything Minnesotans believe in when it comes to the Boundary Waters.

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The project has been Greenlit, and that means the area may never be the same for future generations such as myself. The BWCA is more than just home to thousands of species of wildlife on thousands of acres of land. It is home to the spirit of the rugged individual. A spirit that is too often lost in the chaos of a technology-driven world. If even a small part of that land were deforested, it would mean a chink in that very spirit. With how much opposition to the mine there is already, the risks far outweigh benefits for anyone but PolyMet and its shareholders. Do not be coerced into believing this is an extension of the American Dream, because there is no dream if our grandchildren don’t have clean drinking water in the land of 10,000 lakes. All it takes is 5 minutes of your time to sign a petition. If PolyMet doesn’t see the importance of preserving land untouched for millions of years, we do. The voice of the people will always prevail.

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Works Cited

Lee, Kevin P, et al. “Dear Commissioner Landwher.”, Mncenter, 16 Oct. 2017.

“Sulfide Mining.” Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy,

Kelleher, Bob. “The Debate over Sulfide Mining.” Minnesota Public Radio News, 25 May 2006,

Westgard, Rolf. “Well-Regulated Sulfide Mining Can Be Done Effectively.” MinnPost, 27 Jan. 2014,

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