Climate

Proposed Mining Site Threatens America’s Most Popular Wilderness Area

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On Monday, Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton announced strong opposition to a proposed sulfide mine that would result in acid mine drainage and a series of tailing ponds near Minnesota’s highly-visited Boundary Waters Wilderness Area.

Gov. Dayton sent a letter to the company proposing the mine, unequivocally stating his opposition to the proposal for the first time. If approved, the mine would affect the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW), a 1.1 million acre area in Northeastern Minnesota’s Superior National Forest that connects in the north with the Quetico Provincial Park in Canada. The area is composed of forests and lakes with over 1,200 miles of canoe routes.

“I have grave concerns about the use of state surface lands for mining related activities in close proximity to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW),” Gov. Dayton wrote in his letter to Ian Duckworth, chief operating officer of South-American owned Twin Metals.

Dayton went on to formally deny the leases for mining operations on state lands, citing his “obligation to ensure [the BWCAW] 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,” Dayton wrote.

Twin Metals has applied for leases for a proposed a sulfide-ore copper mining operation, a risky type of mining that can lead to major pollution: metal mining is the most toxic industry in the United States. The by-products of this type of mining include sulfuric acid and heavy metals, which can be devastating to water bodies and the communities that surround them.

This proposal would include an 8,000-acre industrial site that would span three proposed mines just outside of the boundary waters. Most of the proposed mining sites are in the Rainy River Drainage Basin, where water flows north directly into the publicly-owned BWCAW and national forest. A new study in the Journal of Hydrology found that contaminants would be likely to impact the boundary waters through underground or surface leaks or spills, with the damage lasting several hundred years.

While the state has committed to protecting the Boundary Waters from mining, the state-owned land only covers part of the area Twin Metals is looking to mine, leaving the state of the overall project unclear. The company has also applied to renew federal leases managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

On Tuesday, the agency determined that it has the legal authority to deny the leases — originally issued in 1966 before environmental impacts were required to be considered — opening the door for scientific environmental review before a decision is made. Both the governor’s and BLM’s decisions have been lauded by groups working to protect the waters.

“Boundary Waters is a national treasure for sportsmen and outdoor enthusiasts — and serves as an economic engine for the communities in northeastern Minnesota,” said John Tomke, chair of the Wildlife and Hunting Heritage Conservation Council, in a letter. “It is America’s most visited Wilderness Area, primarily because of the pristine habitat that supports a wide diversity of wildlife … and outdoor experiences from hunting and fishing to canoeing and camping. Tourism in this region supports thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars of economic activity annually.”

Sportsmen’s groups have been closely involved in the opposition to these leases. Land Tawney, executive director and CEO of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers said that the protection of the boundary waters “has turned into a national priority, not just for [Backcountry Hunters and Anglers], but for all sportsmen across the country.”

Twin Metals’ proposal is overwhelmingly unpopular in Minnesota. A new poll released by the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters shows that 67 percent of Minnesotans oppose sulfide mining in areas near the Boundary Waters Wilderness and only 16 percent support the proposal. This majority opposition spans the range of political leanings, as well those in the eighth Congressional District, which contains the proposed mining areas. A majority of voters across this spectrum also favor permanent protections for the boundary waters from sulfide mining.

Jenny Rowland is the Research and Advocacy Associate for the Public Lands Project at Center for American Progress. Follow her on Twitter @jennyhrowland.