A sulfide-ore copper mine in the same headwaters as the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness would pose a threat of devastating harm to the wilderness, to the surrounding Superior National Forest lands and waters, and to other vulnerable downstream waters in Quetico Provincial Park and Voyageurs National Park. The watershed containing the Boundary Waters is absolutely the wrong place for sulfide-ore copper mining.
Arguing in apparent support of Antofagasta’s Twin Metals proposal, the News Tribune’s editorial of Feb. 1 asserted that “the process is there to be followed” (Our View: “Resist rhetoric, follow process for mining proposals”). The problem is that the full legal process has not been followed. The mineral-withdrawal process in the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) considers whether mining should be allowed at all on federal public lands that are of unique value and high vulnerability. The administration of President Donald Trump aborted that process with respect to the Superior National Forest.
No amount of review of a mine plan would change the inevitable impact of a Twin Metals mine: Significant degradation of the greater ecosystem and negative alteration of the landscape over many thousands of acres can be expected. So can the pollution of water, land, and air, materially in excess of the existing conditions even if the mine were to comply with federal and state pollution standards.
The repair, mitigation, or fixing of a polluted Boundary Waters would not be possible.
Moreover, industrial accidents happen frequently — too often at catastrophic scale.
The review of a mine plan also wouldn’t address the negative impact on the regional economy. The only peer-reviewed study on the topic found that protecting the Boundary Waters from copper mining would result in more jobs and more income over a 20-year period.
These are exactly the kinds of issues that are addressed in an FLPMA mineral withdrawal study.
In 2017 and 2018, the U.S. Forest Service conducted three mineral-withdrawal studies for national-forest lands: in Montana near Yellowstone National Park, in Washington in the Methow Valley, and in Minnesota in the watershed of the Boundary Waters. After the first two studies were finalized, Trump’s Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke ordered a 20-year mining ban on national forest lands near Yellowstone, and Congress acted to permanently protect both areas in 2019. Political interference led to a different outcome in Minnesota. The Boundary Waters study was not finalized; Trump announced its cancellation at a political rally in Duluth in June 2018. The Minnesota study’s draft reports have been hidden from both Congress and the public.
Mining cannot lawfully occur anywhere in the Superior National Forest without the consent of the U.S. Forest Service. The mineral-withdrawal study that the Trump administration cancelled was commenced after the Forest Service denied its consent to renewal of the only two federal mineral leases in the Superior National Forest, which had been held by Twin Metals. The Forest Service’s 2016 decision denying consent was the culmination of a multi-year process, including two public hearings, comments from 74,000 citizens opposed to copper mining in the watershed, and the consideration of dozens of scientific and economic reports. The 2016 decision has never been withdrawn but was brushed aside by the Trump administration.
The FLPMA withdrawal study is the right process. The negative impacts of sulfide-ore copper mining in the headwaters of the Boundary Waters are irrefutable; an analysis of a proposed mine plan would do nothing to address the inherent destruction and pollution of hardrock mining.
Some uses are simply incompatible. We don't put nuclear plants adjacent to big cities. We don't put bars next to schools. We don't put garbage dumps in residential areas. And we shouldn't put a sulfide-ore copper mine in a healthy national forest, in a water-rich ecosystem, and upstream of the Boundary Waters — the most popular wilderness area in the U.S. and a major driver of the Minnesota Arrowhead’s sustainable economy.
Becky Rom of Ely is the national chair of the nonprofit Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters (savetheboundarywaters.org).