Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership
On Wednesday, October 20, the Biden Administration announced that it would resume federal efforts to seek a 20-year ban on sulfide mining on federal lands surrounding the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Thanks to advocacy from Minnesotans, organizations, and courageous lawmakers including Congresswoman Betty McCollum and Senator Tina Smith, this move – resuming efforts begun during the Obama Administration – could protect this natural treasure and vital water resource for years to come.
In a reversal of the Trump Administration’s support for sulfide mines, including the proposed Twin Metals mine, the federal government plans to begin by restarting a two-year study on its possible impacts on the watershed and surrounding communities. The Interior Department could then implement what’s known as a mineral withdrawal, which prevents further mining leases and development on the land.
This ban would be a major obstacle for Twin Metals, possibly preventing the mine from commencing. The company, a subsidiary of international conglomerate Antofagasta, still holds mineral permits near Ely, but those are currently being litigated. The results of the scientific study could help clean water advocates to make the case for the permits’ cancellation.
This move toward a mineral withdrawal is unequivocally a win for clean water in Minnesota. Sulfide mining has never yet been conducted anywhere in the state, and has an abysmal track record when it comes to pollution – no sulfide mine has operated anywhere in the country without significant, possibly permanent damage to the surrounding environment. The length of time that the mine would produce jobs and economic activity in the region is miniscule compared to the amount of time that present and future Minnesotans will have to spend treating the site of the mine for pollution.
When the waste from sulfide ore is exposed water and air, it produces sulfuric acid, producing acid mine drainage when it enters an aquatic environment. This drainage is highly corrosive and toxic and severely damages surrounding ecosystems. Because the Boundary Waters is so interconnected, a spill into part of the watershed could cause devastation to water and wildlife, as well as to the people who live in or visit the area. Weather events exacerbated by climate change make such a spill even more likely. And the Twin Metals mine and other mines like it would result in the destruction of numerous acres of forests and wetlands, releasing carbon into the atmosphere and worsening our environment’s ability to absorb emissions.
For all these reasons and more, MEP and our allies have been working for years to protect Minnesota for the impacts of sulfide mining from projects like Twin Metals and PolyMet, a similar mine proposal near Hoyt Lakes. Like Twin Metals, PolyMet threatens a major, vulnerable watershed: the basin of the St. Louis River, Lake Superior’s largest U.S. tributary. Likewise, PolyMet faces headwinds: its permits are repeatedly being suspended or overturned in the courts after facing legal challenges from tribal and environmental advocates.
It’s important to understand that Twin Metals and PolyMet may be two separate mines in two separate watersheds, but the connection between them is that the greenlighting of one would help pave the way for the other by setting a harmful precedent. And on the flip side, shedding light on the scientific facts about Twin Metals could help better establish the dangers in the minds of Minnesotans and in state and federal agencies.
In the long run, Minnesota’s best defense against sulfide mining pollution requires addressing the danger of these mining plans individually and of this type of mining in general. That’s the basis for the Prove it First proposal advanced by MEP, our allied organizations, and many Minnesota legislators. If Prove it First were enacted into law, it would prevent Minnesota for being a guinea pig for the purported “new technology” that PolyMet and Twin Metals claim they would use to successfully protect water. The law would require that a sulfide mine operate elsewhere in the United States for ten years without causing pollution, then be closed for ten more years without causing pollution, before such mining could be attempted in Minnesota.
The safe closure of the mines and storage of waste is particularly important. Even if a mine somehow did not pollute the surrounding water during its limited operating lifespan, it would require indefinite maintenance and treatment to deal with the aftermath – as in centuries or millenia. Given the track records of Antofagasta and PolyMet owner Glencore, we can’t trust that they would stick around to foot the bill for even a few years after shutting down a mine.
The Biden Administration has made the right call when it comes to securing the Boundary Waters watershed for current and future generations. We hope to see state and federal leaders continue to pay attention to the science on sulfide mining, and take strong steps to make sure the land of 10,000 lakes is protected.
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