Range development and the parks

Boundary Waters
A canoe on Sawbill Lake in the BWCAW.
MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher

Like perhaps nowhere else in the state, northeast Minnesota is identified with clean lakes, forests, and wilderness. It's home to the popular Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Voyageurs National Park.

But it's also home to iron mining, arguably one of the most destructive industries for the landscape.

Mining shovel
A shovel is moving rock from a future mining site at Hibbing Taconite. The shovel fills 240 ton mining trucks with five or six scoops.
MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher

Now, some people, like Chisholm's Elanne Palcich, are saying the region is no place for more industrial development. Not while there's still clean water, wetlands, and forests.

"It's like this is our last chance," says Palcich. "We're going to lose all that if we just let all these industries come in."

But the march is clearly on for new industries, with copper mining, a steel mill, a large coal gasification power plant, an expanded paper mill, and other projects in the works. It's too much for Palcich, a retired school teacher and a member of the Sierra Club.

Elanne Palcich
Elanne Palcich is a retired elementary school teacher in Chisholm. Palcich is an active member of the Sierra Club Northstar Chapter.
MPR Photo

With so many proposed projects, Palcich finds it hard to focus on all the threats. She worries that some projects have been fast tracked with special legislation.

"I think we need to go slow," Palcich says. "I think we need to go slow and we need to think about what we're doing."

It's enough to make an environmentalist's head spin. There's carbon monoxide concerns if the coal gasification power plant shows up near Taconite. And new mining is planned just a dozen miles from the area's premier wilderness.

"Copper/nickel is right on the edge of the Boundary Waters," says Palcich. "And that stuff could leach either way."

Palcich fears the rush to jobs will hurt the wilderness, and mar the beauty that's still found on the Iron Range.

Excelsior Energy's power plant, for example, would be built near the Itasca County town of Taconite, in easy view of Scenic Highway 7.

Power lines
High voltage power lines tower over the highway between Chisholm and Hibbing. The region's iron mines are huge consumers of electric power. New industries would only increase the demand, while additional lines could be run for a proposed coal gasification power plant.
MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher

"Putting your plant on a scenic highway, you know, you could put plants in lots of places," says Palcich. "Why put it there?"

But it's not that scenic, according to Ron Dicklich, another lifelong resident and former state lawmaker.

"Scenic highway?" Dicklich asks. "To get to the scenic highway you go right underneath the big steel taconite train trestle. So, these are industrial sites."

Dicklich heads the Range Association of Municipalities and Schools. He's a former lobbyist for a proposed steel plant, and he sees the Range in a whole different light than does Elanne Palcich.

"Don't come in the middle of the Iron Range and tell me it's pristine," Dicklich says. "It's not pristine. Those hills aren't pristine, they're made by man."

Don't come in the middle of the Iron Range and tell me it's pristine. It's not pristine. Those hills aren't pristine, they're made by man.

Many of the hills along Highway 169 between Virginia and Grand Rapids are actually mining rock dumps. Some show bands of reddish minerals, others are covered with young trees. Dicklich says the region might have been pristine 150 years ago, but not in recent memory.

"What's pristine?" asks Dicklich. "You go stand where Excelsior's going to be built, or Minnesota Steel. All there is left is the remnants of industrial development."

But if Iron Range industries don't worry Rangers like Dicklich, they are at least a concern for the people who manage federal areas nearby.

Voyageurs National Park and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness are just to the east and northeast -- downwind on many days. Forest Service and Park officials are wading into the environmental impact statements needed with each major development.

Trent Wickman, an air quality specialist with the Superior National Forest, says there are unique pollution laws that apply to the wilderness areas.

"The Boundary Waters is what's called a Class 1 area, which, within the Clean Air Act, just means it has special protection," Wickman says.

Ron Dicklich
Ron Dicklich heads the Range Association of Municipalities and Schools, based in Buhl. He's a former state lawmaker and a former lobbyist for an Iron Range steel plant project.
MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher

Each proposed industry will need to model how its air emissions might affect the BWCAW, as well as Voyageurs and Isle Royale National Parks. They'll consider visibility, measured by the thickness of haze. That haze, Wickman says, is exacerbated by industrial pollutants like nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxides.

"Sulfur dioxide causes acid rain, visibility problems, and it's also being shown in research to stimulate mercury methylization which is a key part in the mercury cycle, where mercury can start becoming incorporated into the food chain," Wickman says.

Even with the best pollution control technology, each industry is going to add something to the air and water. Mesabi Nugget could pump up to 75 pounds of mercury into the air each year. Excelsior Energy will create huge amounts of carbon dioxide, a known greenhouse gas. Minnesota Steel Industries will produce tons of sulfur oxides and nitrogen oxides.

Wickman says it's the cumulative effects of all the industries that's important -- those proposed, and those already in business.

"With all these pollutants you can focus in on one facility, but a lot of times you need to kind of widen your scope and look at what else is going on," Wickman says. "What are other facilities doing? Maybe there are some other facilities, big or small, that are reducing emissions. And how does this all cumulatively look?"

Mining headframe
Today's taconite mining in Minnesota is all in open pits. But historically, many of the region's iron mines were underground. This underground mine headframe east of Chisholm was built in 1926 for the Bruce mine.
MPR Photo/BKelleher

For example, he says, Minnesota Power has announced plans to reduce mercury emissions at power plants in Laskin and Taconite Harbor. Those reductions could help offset some new emitters.

The record in the Boundary Waters is mixed so far. Wickman says pollution still contributes to haze. But he says rainfall is now less acidic than it was 20 years ago. Mercury is an ongoing problem, and fish consumption advisories are in place even on wilderness lakes.

The regulatory agencies, like Minnesota Pollution Control and the Department of Natural Resources, will be working to ensure that pollution doesn't increase, even with the new industries.

Elanne Palcich will be watching. So will others, like John Roth, who heads the group Friends of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

"We're looking at each project separately, you know, to see whether or not it has a direct impact on the Boundary Waters," Roth says. "If the impact is more indirect, or more simply a matter of the cumulative impact of that project together with the others, we probably will be joining together with some of the environmental organizations that are weighing in on these things."

The organizations will be working to ensure that whatever happens on the Range, stays on the Range, and out of the region's wilderness areas.

Before you go...

MPR News is dedicated to bringing you clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives when we need it most. We rely on your help to do this. Your donation has the power to keep MPR News strong and accessible to all during this crisis and beyond.