Local view: Sulfide mining threatens BWCAWMinnesotans concerned with protecting clean water in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and in the St. Louis River watershed continue to look skeptically at proposals to develop a new kind of mining — sulfide mining — in Minnesota.
By: Kevin Proescholdt, Duluth News Tribune
Minnesotans concerned with protecting clean water in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and in the St. Louis River watershed continue to look skeptically at proposals to develop a new kind of mining — sulfide mining — in Minnesota.
Proposed sulfide mining would be unlike iron ore and taconite mining, which have operated for more than a century in the state. Because the sought-after copper, nickel and other precious metals exist in tiny proportions in sulfide-bearing ore bodies, the massive waste rock piles and disturbed surfaces will interact with snow and water to produce sulfuric acid. Nowhere in the country has a sulfide mine been developed and operated without serious, long-term pollution problems. Even the 2009 draft environmental impact statement for PolyMet Mining Company’s proposed new mine admitted that sulfuric acid will leach from its operations for up to 2,000 years.
Concerned citizens wonder whether the Minnesota Legislature will weaken environmental standards to make it easier for this new type of polluting mining operation to begin and whether the State Executive Council will approve new
mineral-exploration leases of state-owned minerals that lie beneath privately owned surface lands where the private surface owners oppose giving mining companies permission to disturb their lands.
Policymakers would do well to listen to the following nationally prominent Minnesotan on this topic:
“Today when environmental problems are on everyone’s mind and it is recognized that the quality of life is deteriorating, it is incongruous that mining laws of a century ago, which gave owners of mineral rights the legal right of access for prospecting and mining irrespective of who owns the surface, could now take from us this land we have learned to love and cherish.
“The time has come for the people to speak up loudly and clearly for the preservation of the wilderness canoe country of the BWCA. They have the right to demand of their representatives in Congress and the State Legislature that prospecting and mining be prohibited, that the ancient mining laws of the frontier be repealed as outmoded and inapplicable to modern needs. Private mineral rights may have to be purchased, but not at bonanza prices, and it is well to remember that the real bonanza in a ravished environment today is the very existence of wilderness in the BWCA.
“It is also well to remember that exhaustive prospecting in the Superior National Forest outside the boundaries of the BWCA has resulted, according to reports, in less than three-
quarters of one percent combined copper and nickel, hardly a bonanza in view of much higher percentages in Canada and elsewhere in the United States.
“The mining threat … must be stopped, and the only way it can be done is by such mass outrage at what is contemplated that Congress will change the mining laws and appropriate funds to buy out the private mineral rights involved.
“The issue can be won, but it will take all of the energy, intelligence and idealism that can be mustered. What happens here will determine the fate of not only the BWCA but of other wilderness areas as well. We must not fail to meet the challenge before us.”
The nationally prominent Minnesotan who wrote these words in 1970 was Sigurd F. Olson. Though the particulars of the sulfide-mining issues are somewhat different today, many of them remain eerily the same. More than four decades ago, Olson recognized the grave impacts to the BWCAW and surrounding watersheds from this new kind of mining. As Olson foresaw, however, we can protect the BWCAW and the St. Louis River watershed from the potentially devastating impacts of sulfide mining — but only if policymakers can be persuaded to protect these world-class natural resources from 2,000 years of pollution.
Let’s hope the Minnesota Legislature and the State Executive Council heed Sigurd Olson’s prophetic warning in 2012.
Kevin Proescholdt of Minneapolis is the conservation director for Wilderness Watch, a national wilderness conservation organization (wildernesswatch.org). He wrote this for the News Tribune.