Northeastern Minnesota is blessed with two world-class natural resources: the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Lake Superior. Upstream of each is the possibility of copper mining that would pose severe risks of permanent, toxic pollution.
The million-acre Boundary Waters is the most visited wilderness area in the United States, with more than 1,000 pristine lakes and streams and 1,500 miles of canoe routes. Lake Superior is the world's largest lake by surface area, containing 10 percent of the world's available freshwater. Between the two is the Superior National Forest, which provides important habitat for moose, lynx, and wolves. This entire Arrowhead region is also the traditional home of the Ojibwe, where fishing and hunting rights are legally protected by treaty.
Just upstream from the Boundary Waters wilderness has been mineral exploration by Twin Metals, activity that could lead to one of the world's largest underground copper mines. At the headwaters of the Lake Superior watershed is the proposed 528-acre, open-pit PolyMet copper mine, which would threaten water downstream for hundreds of years.
The contrasting paths of these two potential mining operations are increasingly concerning to many of us who live in the region and advocate for its clean water, forests, and wildlife.
The U.S. Forest Service correctly determined that copper mining poses an unacceptable risk near the Boundary Waters. The Forest Service refused to consent to the renewal of Twin Metals' mineral leases, but the administration of President Donald Trump reinstated them anyway, an action now under litigation.
For the proposed PolyMet mine, the Forest Service recognized that an open-pit copper mine was not allowed in the Superior National Forest. However, instead of rejecting the prospect, as it did with Twin Metals, the Forest Service agreed to exchange lands with PolyMet to facilitate development of the mine in the headwaters of the Lake Superior watershed.
On March 5, news broke that the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters had hired former Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr as its new executive director. Landwehr, like the Forest Service, has stated that he finds the potential risk of copper mining too great to allow near the Boundary Waters. But just a couple months ago, as DNR commissioner, Landwehr issued key permits to PolyMet for its proposed open-pit copper mine, despite acknowledging the environmental risks.
As is often the case, just beneath the surface are questions of environmental justice.
Downstream from the PolyMet mine is the Fond du Lac Reservation, where over 30 percent of people live below the poverty line. And, according to a 2011 Minnesota Department of Health study, one out of 10 babies born in the Lake Superior region has unsafe levels of toxic mercury in their bloodstream.
Yet the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has long neglected its duty to develop a mercury-reduction plan for the St. Louis River watershed. And the state Legislature has gone out of its way to undermine a longstanding water-quality standard designed to protect the region's wild rice.
At the federal level, the region's congressional representatives have sought to exempt the PolyMet land exchange from judicial review. The EPA, meanwhile, apparently directed its expert staff to avoid expressing in writing their water-quality concerns about the project, including the potential risk for increased mercury contamination downstream.
Hardrock mining is the nation's most toxic industry, and its harmful environmental legacy lasts forever. A massive copper mine in the wetlands and forests of Northeastern Minnesota is too destructive and risky, whether in the Lake Superior watershed or just over the divide in the Boundary Waters watershed.
The Center for Biological Diversity will continue to fight both the Twin Metals and PolyMet mines to protect the region's wildlife, waters, and downstream communities.
Marc Fink of Duluth is a senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity (biologicaldiversity.org).