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Mining issue simmers on edge of the wilderness

Dave and Amy Freeman have been contemplating a year in the wilderness for several years. Part of their reason for doing the trip now is to call attention to the issue of copper mining that is proposed on federal land near the southern edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness by Twin Metals Minnesota.

Twin Metals plans a large mining operation southeast of Ely along the Kawishiwi River, which ultimately flows into the BWCAW.

Last fall, the Freemans paddled a canoe 2,000 miles from the Boundary Waters to Washington, D.C. That trip was aimed at drawing attention and opposition to the proposed Twin Metals mine and other potential mining projects in the BWCAW watershed. The Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, a coalition of groups that opposes copper mining in the BWCAW watershed, says it wants to protect the federal wilderness from the toxic pollution that it says could result from mining copper, nickel and other metals from sulfide-bearing ore.

“Communities like Ely and Grand Marais have built sustainable, diverse and resilient economies based on the healthy land and waters of the Superior National Forest and proximity to the Boundary Waters wilderness,” says Ely’s Becky Rom, national campaign chair for the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters. “Sulfide-ore copper mining would change everything. This type of mining has an unbroken record of polluting lakes, rivers and groundwater with acid mine drainage, which is toxic to plants, fish, wildlife and humans. Thousands of acres of our national forest would be transformed into an industrial mining zone.”

On this trip, the Freemans are receiving financial and logistical support from Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness and the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters.

Twin Metals officials have repeatedly said they will abide by all state and federal water-quality regulations and that the BWCAW will not be affected by its mining operations. The company has not yet submitted any proposal for environmental review but has suggested it would process its ore outside the BWCAW watershed.

“We all want clean water. We all want to protect the Boundary Waters Canoe Area,” said Frank Ongaro, executive director of Mining Minnesota, an industry trade association. “The important thing to recognize is the Boundary Waters Canoe Area is already protected. In addition to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, there’s a significant buffer zone around the Boundary Waters that the feds and the state of Minnesota have established for additional protection. ... We have strong standards in place. Any company that comes forward with a mine plan will have to demonstrate, with state and federal regulations, that they can meet water quality standards, or they won’t advance.”