Environmental Legacy: Twin Metals and Beyond

This past Thursday, I attended a forum on the Twin Metals proposed mining in the Boundary Waters area.  If you don’t know about Twin Metals, here’s the rundown:

Twin Metals is a Minnesota mining company that wants to do exploratory drilling up in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (or at least somewhere close by).  They have two mineral rights leases that they attempted to renew a few years back, but the presidential administration, then under President Obama, decided to deny the renewal.  Twin Metals expressed their disappointment with the decision, and has been lobbying against it ever since.  Fast-forward to last Thursday, and we had a forum in Duluth hosted by the U.S. Forest Service on the issue.  The specific focus of this forum was the withdrawal of federal lands from Twin Metals and a possible implementation of a twenty-year ban on copper-nickel mining in the area.  Many people voiced their opinions over the roughly two and a half hour event.  Pro-mining people argued that the mine could create jobs and reinvigorate the economy in the area (especially for the town of Ely), whereas anti-mining people argued that the mine could do drastic damage to the Boundary Waters area.

Now I won’t beat around the bush here.  I am definitely on the environmental side of things.  My family used to own a cabin up in the Boundary Waters until the Ham Lake Fire of 2007 burned it down.  I’ve gone canoeing in the Boundary Waters and camped there a few times in my life.  There’s nothing really quite like it.  It feels…untouched by modern civilization in a way.  Sure, there are people who live in the area, but it is nowhere near as cluttered or developed as other areas in the state or the nation.  There might not even be another place like it on the planet.  It is certainly a treasure and should be protected.

I’m going to back up a little bit and say I do understand where the pro-mining people are coming from to an extent.  Mining has been and still is the driving force behind the economy up here.  Even though I’ve lived in Duluth for more than five years now, I never fully realized how deeply people felt about it until last Thursday.  And I know that the typical breakdown of this is that the people who live on the Iron Range are for the mine, and the people who live in Minneapolis/St. Paul or other areas south of the Iron Range (namely the tourists) are the ones against it.  But I think that the possible environmental impacts are something that should be addressed.

Like I said, I get it.  People on the Iron Range don’t have it easy.  Ever since the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act back in the ’70s, the tourism industry of the area has fallen on hard times.  Motorboats were banned from being used in the area with the exception of certain lakes and even then only up to a certain amount of horsepower.  Tourism fell because many people didn’t want to travel on the lakes if they couldn’t use a motorboat.  And people don’t spend that much when they come up to the Boundary Waters because it doesn’t cost a lot to go camping.  But the possible impacts of sulfide mining (which is what Twin Metals would use should they create a mine in the area) should not be ignored.  According to Friends of the Boundary Waters, the environmental risks from sulfide mining are different from the typical iron ore mining because “when rain falls on the waste from iron mining, it makes rust; when rain falls on sulfide ore waste, sulfuric acid is produced. Sulfuric acid leaches out metals and chemicals from the waste and creates acid mine drainage…”

Basically, sulfide mining can create acid rain, which can be devastating for the ecosystem and create problems such as contaminated drinking water.

The common argument is that since technology has advanced so much, mining is safer.  And even if something happens, pro-mining people argue, we can clean it up.  But, as an associate professor from UMD said during the forum, the question isn’t necessarily if Twin Metals can fix the damage, but rather will they fix the damage?  Pollution can continue for decades, even centuries after the closure of a mine.  And there’s no guarantee that Twin Metals will be around for that entire time, spearheading the clean-up efforts.  Friends of the Boundary Waters argues that sometimes mining companies will even refuse to pay for the clean-up, leaving the burden on the taxpayers and the residents of the area.  The cleanup of the St. Louis River has been going on for decades.  Environmental damage is no laughing matter.  It takes serious work to clean it up.

As I said, I get it.  People need jobs.  But I have to ask, is it really worth it?  Is it worth the risk to create jobs that will last what, ten or twenty years maybe?  Is it worth possibly spending over a century trying to fix the damage?  And can we be absolutely certain that Twin Metals will be here to clean it up, or even be willing to clean it up at all?

I must believe that there is a better way to deal with the issue.  There must be a better way forward than to risk destroying a natural and national treasure.


Thanks for reading!  Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.

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