Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership
Last fall, the Biden Administration resumed the effort toward a 20-year withdrawal of federal permits for sulfide mining on federal lands surrounding the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. This week, the U.S. Forest Service took a key step forward with an Environmental Assessment of the proposed withdrawal, moving closer to long-term protection for one of our greatest water and wilderness resources.
The Environmental Assessment, which will inform the process and the Secretary of the Interior’s final decision on the withdrawal, studied the possible impacts of both the withdrawal and of allowing sulfide mines such as Twin Metals to go forward. It found, unsurprisingly, that copper-nickel sulfide mines would have negative consequences on the environment and economy of Boundary Waters area communities.
It’s no secret that sulfide mining is a dirty industry. Sulfide mining can produce acid waste and sulfates that mobilize the release of heavy metals like lead and mercury into the environment that are known neurotoxins. No such mine has ever been operated in the United States without significant pollution to the surrounding environment and harm to human health.
As the assessment recognizes, in an interconnected, water ecosystem like the Boundary Waters, such pollution spells catastrophe for waters and people downstream. And that’s not just during the mine’s operation. After the mine has been shut down, runoff of toxic substances like sulfuric acid is even more likely because of a lack of guaranteed support for monitoring and containment.
The Forest Service also notes that Minnesota tribal communities would be negatively impacted by sulfide mining, perhaps most visibly through the damage to wild rice. Wild rice is foundational to Anishinaabe culture and guaranteed to their tribes in Minnesota, and a sulfide mine would certainly impact the rice beds through sulfates downstream or changes in water levels.
The economic takeaway from the assessment is also key. The Forest Service notes that while a sulfide mine like Twin Metals would result in a short-term boom – with an uncertain number – of high-paying jobs, it would only last for the mine’s operation. After that, the boom would necessarily give way to a bust.
In the meantime, pollution and land destruction would reduce the Boundary Waters’ growing recreation economy, killing long-term jobs. In their own words, “over time the economic benefits of mining tend to be outweighed by the negative impact of mining on the recreation economy.” The mineral withdrawal is far and away the more economically sustainable option.
The next step
The release of this Environmental Assessment kicks off a 30-day period in which the Forest Service will take comments on the document. After that, the Bureau of Land Management will collect, examine, and summarize the comments so that Interior Secretary Deb Haaland can then make a decision on the withdrawal. If all goes as many MEP groups hope, this action could be the final word in the saga of the Twin Metals mine, already dealt a blow when the federal government revoked permits and the DNR then ceased work on the mine’s environmental review.
In the long-term, this ban could protect the Boundary Waters for many years to come, but it could also be reversed by a future administration. Legislative solutions, like Representative Betty McCollum’s Boundary Waters Wilderness Protection and Pollution Prevention Act, would be more durable. And we also need protections for other vulnerable areas of the state, like the St. Louis River and Lake Superior watersheds under threat from PolyMet. Prove it First legislation, which would prevent a sulfide mine from opening in Minnesota unless a similar mine can operate and shut down safely elsewhere, would help provide permanent security for all state waters.
For now, MEP is glad to see the Forest Service move forward to keep the waters of the north clean for future generations, for wildlife and for tribal communities of today.
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