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Conservationist's view: Don’t let copper mines ruin pristine Boundary Waters

On Memorial Day, Minnesota’s hunters and anglers and other outdoors enthusiasts remembered and gave thanks for those who sacrificed so much for our nation and its great public-lands heritage. But it’s important to keep in mind that the battles to protect and perpetuate our nation’s unequaled public-lands legacy are still raging — in the halls of Congress, at state legislatures, in county commission boardrooms and elsewhere.

Recently, in northern Minnesota, these battles focused on proposals by foreign-owned mining companies Twin Metals/Antofagasta and PolyMet/Glencore to mine sulfide-ore deposits from sites in the watersheds of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Lake Superior.

As explained by Minnesota Backcountry Hunters and Anglers board member Will Jenkins, “While iron ore mines have a long history in Minnesota, sulfide-ore copper mines are very different. … Every mine in the world has caused … contamination of its surrounding area. Sulfuric acid and heavy metals leach into the soil and contaminate waterways.”

Former U.S. Vice President Walter Mondale wrote in the Star Tribune in March: “Sulfide-ore mining has never — never — been undertaken without serious environmental consequences. Sulfide-ore mining is dangerous everywhere and most dangerous in wet environments. And the Boundary Waters is nothing if not wet. The consequences of such mining are perpetual. They will surely outlive all of us and will just as surely outlive the mining company’s pledges, promises and sureties.”

Thankfully, in March, Gov. Mark Dayton potentially stopped Twin Metals’ controversial proposal to build a sulfide mine near the Boundary Waters. Saying he has “grave concerns” about the proposed Twin Metals underground mine near Ely, Dayton directed Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr “not to authorize or enter into any new state access agreements or lease agreements for mining operations” on state lands that could be part of the proposed mine.

Although PolyMet has said the toxic runoff from its proposed mining operation near Babbitt would not affect the Boundary Waters, the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission ran its own water model and determined PolyMet’s pollution would flow into the Boundary Waters watershed; the DNR still has not run the model, relying solely on PolyMet’s paid consultant, according to a Wilderness Guardian report in March.

Also in March, a poll found that 67 percent of Minnesotans oppose sulfide mining in areas near the Boundary Waters, and only 16 percent support the proposals. This majority opposition spanned the range of political leanings and the 8th Congressional District, which contains the proposed mining areas.

It’s tempting to buy into the false optimism, the smoke-and-mirrors rhetoric, and the claims that these sulfide mines can be run without any risk to the water and people of Minnesota. But when you turn over even a few rocks, the prospects enter the realm of fantasy. As the former assistant commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Ron Way said in the Star Tribune last year, “Truth is, (copper-nickel) mining has proved environmentally harmful, even disastrous, wherever in the world it’s been done.”

And, in the words of Republicans for Environmental Protection President Robert C. Sisson, “Public lands are not a luxury that can be tossed aside when the going gets tough. As Theodore Roosevelt knew more than a century ago, public lands are essential for keeping America a strong and prosperous democracy. Our country’s outdoor heritage, open to every citizen from every walk of life, strengthens our economy, enlivens our culture and enriches our lives. We must protect our public lands for all to enjoy, now and in the future.”