Public fiercely divided on proposed mining ban near BWCA

Morning fog lifts from Alton Lake in the BWCA.
Morning fog lifts from Alton Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness on Aug. 24, 2019. The federal government held the first of three public meetings Wednesday to get feedback on a proposed copper-nickel mining ban near the Boundary Waters.
Matt Sepic | MPR News 2019

More than five years since the federal government first proposed a 20-year mining ban across a large swath of federal land south of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, federal officials once again gathered feedback from the public on the proposal at a three-hour virtual meeting Wednesday afternoon.

And once again, opinion was fiercely divided. On one hand, supporters of the proposal insisted that the watershed of the Boundary Waters — a fragile and unique ecosystem and one of the most popular wilderness areas in the country — is the absolute wrong place to mine for copper, nickel and other precious metals, a process that creates serious environmental risks.

On the other side, mining supporters said that modern methods can protect the environment, and unlock rich mineral resources that could grow the region’s economy and provide critical metals for the transition to the green economy.

Commenters had up to three minutes each to make their case for or against the application from the U.S. Forest Service to ban new mining development over about 350 square miles of the Superior National Forest within the Rainy River watershed, which flows into the Boundary Waters.

That includes where Twin Metals Minnesota has proposed an underground copper-nickel mine near Ely.

Superior National Forest supervisor Connie Cummins laid out the government’s perspective at the start of the meeting.

“We applied for this withdrawal because of unanswered questions surrounding copper and nickel mining in sulfide mineral deposits, and potential impacts to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness," she said.

Those potential impacts include contamination from acid mine drainage, seeping from tailings water and possible failure of a tailings basin, said Cummins.

The Obama administration started a similar mining moratorium analysis in 2017, held three public meetings like this one, and gathered 90,000 public comments. But the Trump administration halted that process.

Now, the Biden administration has restarted it — the latest move in an ongoing tug-of-war that’s spanned three administrations.

Supporters of the ban like Don Barry argued the watershed of the Boundary Waters is the wrong place for copper-nickel mining, which poses more serious environmental risks than iron ore mining.

“When it comes to protecting the Boundary Waters, from the likely disastrous effects of nearby mining, this is not even a close call,” Barry said. “The BWCA is a priceless national treasure, and should be protected from mining. Period. Full stop.”

While Barry and others argued this is a national issue, many local mining supporters resent what they view as outside perspectives.

“I am tired of outsiders meddling with our projects,” said Chris Hill, union president of the Carpenters Local 361 in Hermantown.

“We are passionate about our region because many of us have lived here for generations, cared for the water and the natural habitat. We have made a good living working in jobs like construction, mining, logging and other industrial work,” he said.

Hill and other opponents of a mining ban also argued that these proposals should be allowed to go through environmental review and permitting. In that process, state and federal regulators determine whether they can meet environmental standards.

"I don’t think it’s a good idea to arbitrarily preempt the ability for people to design a project, to design a safe and modern approach to utilizing those minerals, because of a presumption of harm,” said Doug Connell, a vice president with Barr Engineering, which works on many mining projects.

“I think to do that it really abdicates the responsibility you have as agencies to do a thorough evaluation," said Connell.

But supporters of the mineral withdrawal request say that too is an established process. A similar 20-year mining ban recently took effect near Yellowstone National Park. And they say it looks at broader socio-economic impacts of mining on the region — not just whether a mine can meet standards.

Steve Snyder, who owns a cabin in the Ely area, said mining would threaten the positive economic impact that seasonal homeowners like him provide.

“We would never have built and stayed near Ely if there had been a mine with its inevitable toxic runoff in the area. No one selects a vacation or retirement home in a polluted environment,” he said.

There was one last big theme that emerged during the three-hour meeting. Mining supporters like Kevin Pranis of the Laborers' International Union of North America argued that mines in the proposed withdrawal area could provide needed metals for green technologies like electric vehicle batteries.

“Minnesota accounts for less than 2 percent of CO2 emissions, but we're home to 95 percent of the US nickel resource, 88 percent of the cobalt resource and 75 percent of platinum group metals,” Pranis argued.

But Ingrid Lyons with the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters countered that mining near the Boundary Waters is not critical for a clean energy future.

"There are places where domestic sourcing of these minerals is simply not appropriate,” she said, arguing that allies like Canada have much larger mineral reserves, and recycling can also play a large role.

The debate doesn’t end here. Two more public meetings are scheduled. The comments will be included in an environmental analysis of the proposal, which Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland will use to decide whether to make the Boundary Waters watershed off limits to new mining for 20 years.