Mining Debate Near Boundary Waters Reaches Critical Point

September 27, 2017 11:07 PM

You don't have to look far to be reminded of how mining helped forge communities in northeastern Minnesota.

"Our mine was across there, there was a shaft there," said Ely resident Ray Nickolson, who used to work in one of the area mines before he retired. "It was the big bread winner for everyone up here."


But now, that heritage is being rocked to the core. Groups are pushing back against plans to tap into reserves of copper and nickel, with an estimated value of hundreds of billions of dollars. Opponents say mining will irreparably harm the nearby Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) Wilderness – more than a million acres of pristine waters and protected forests.

"It's straight up paddling paradise and no place I'd rather be,' said Jason Zabokrtsky, who makes his living as a wilderness guide in the Boundary Waters. "That's just too risky for this very special place."

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"They can't believe mining would be immediately next to the wilderness," said Becky Rom, who leads the group Save the BWCA.

Rom says sulfide mining — the type of mining being considered — has never been done in Minnesota. She says it poses greater environmental risk than taconite mining because removing the metal from the ground prompts a chemical reaction.

"It's sulfuric acid that leeches out with it heavy metals and sulfates," she said "That brew is toxic."

In December, the United States Forest Service called the risk of this type of mining near the BWCA "unacceptable", because it produces "acid mine drainage." The agency denied a renewal of mining leases held by Twin Metals Minnesota, a company owned by Chilean billionaire Andronico Luksic.

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Twin Metals' leases were on federal land in the Superior National forest, outside of the BWCA and a required buffer zone. But opponents argue their location bordering the protected area is still too close and tainted water would flow north into the BWCA.

"Hydrology has shown this pollution will enter the wilderness," Rom said. 'We could lose the Boundary Waters and once it's gone, it's gone."

In the letter recommending the denial of the lease renewals, the chief of the Forest Service wrote, "…the risk of affecting water quality by sulfide ore mining in the watershed outweighs the potential benefits of mining in this particular location."

"The very first thing a company could do is show us a copper mine that has never polluted," Rom said. "It doesn't exist in the world."

After denying the leases, the federal government also stopped renewing leases and issuing new ones on 235,000 acers near the Boundary Waters. The government is also conducting an environmental study that could take up to two years to complete. That study will conclude with a recommendation to the Secretary of the United States Department of Interior whether to block mining on that land for up to 20 years.

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"There's no question that mining activity, or building roads, or buildings, or cabins or towns has an impact on the landscape. That's very clear. But they're done within criteria intended to protect the environmental resources of the area," said Twin Metals Minnesota Vice President Bob McFarlin.

McFarlin says Twin Metals and its predecessors have held and renewed those leases without issue for decades. The company has spent $400 million since 2010 surveying the area with the expectation to mine. KSTP asked McFarlin what assurances he could offer that the mining would not negatively impact the environment.

"The most effective assurance is that the law prohibits ... environmental damage and the law dictates the environmental standards that a mining project has to meet to protect the environment," McFarlin said.

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Twin Metals also has the support of Minnesota Republican, U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer and Democratic Representative Rick Nolan.

"Once someone proposes a mining project, it kicks all kinds of requirements on the environmental side," Emmer said.

Emmer is working on legislation that would stop the environmental review and mining moratorium and would allow Twin Metals to move forward and propose a project. Emmer said no mining would be approved unless it meets state and federal environmental protection standards.

"I believe you can have the best of all of it," Emmer said.

Should lawmakers pass legislation that would stop the environmental review and mining moratorium near the BWCA? Let these lawmakers know your views.

Mining has support back in Ely, largely because of what people say they believe it will do for the economy.

"I support mining because I want some jobs up here," Nickolson said. "I want some young people up here."

"I worry that someday there won't be an Ely, it'll be a ghost town. And it doesn't need to be," Ely resident Nikki Engen said. "Clean water and mining. We can have both," Engen said.

But just  blocks away at Piragis Northwoods Company, owner Steve Piragis holds the opposite view.

RELATED: Copper-Nickel Mining Ban Near BWCA Up for Comment in Duluth

"Ely is doing really quite well," Piragis said.

KSTP Poll with Survey USA about Boundary Waters mining

Here's how 550 adults responded to the question: Do you support or oppose a proposal by Twin Metals Minnesota for sulfide mining -- which has never been done before in Minnesota -- near the Boundary Waters canoe area?

  • 20 percent - Support
  • 47 percent - Oppose
  • 33 percent - Not Sure

*Margin of error 4.3 percent

Piragis said tourism is a growing part of the area's economy.

However, KSTP checked records from the State Department of Revenue. They show mining generates twice as much tax revenue as tourism in northeastern Minnesota. The state collected $60 million in taxes in leisure and hospitality in 2015. That same year the mining industry generated $125 million.

Piragis said he's not against mining in general, but he believes doing it so close to the BWCA would drive more people away than the number of jobs it would bring.

"They're not moving here to see an industrialized zone, a big mining zone on the south edge of town," Piragis said.

Twin Metals lawsuit against the government could take years to play out in the court system. The company says it's moving forward regardless.

"We believe we will prevail in court and we are continuing to develop our project and preparing to present to state and federal agencies based on our belief we are in the legal right," McFarlin said.

Emmer and Nolan's legislation received a preliminary approval earlier in September. Supporters also say there's a chance President Trump's administration could also take action on the issue.


Matt Belanger

Copyright 2018 - KSTP-TV, LLC A Hubbard Broadcasting Company


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