Boundary Waters businesses sue over pollution threat to wilderness area

The mine could end up costing the area 4,500 jobs, while creating only 427.

The mine could end up costing the area 4,500 jobs, while creating only 427. Star Tribune

Time is running out for one of the United States’ last refuges of pure, untouched wilderness: the Boundary Waters.

The Trump administration has killed a restriction on renewing mining leases in the area, allowing Twin Metals to pursue a copper-nickel mine on the watershed.

This is particularly alarming because of the byproduct of this kind of mining: sulfide-bearing ore. It’s fairly harmless if it stays in the ground. But if it’s exposed to rain or air or snow, whatever runs off becomes sulfuric acid. The toxic stuff leeches into the lakes, the groundwater, the animals, everything, poisoning the water and killing everything in sight. 

Mine supporters say they can prevent pollution, but sulfide ore copper mining has a terrible track record. And once the pollution is out of the bag, there’s no putting it back.

“Once the Boundary Waters is polluted, it can’t be fixed,” says Becky Rom of Ely, the head of Save the Boundary Waters.

This is about more than just saving the pristine swath of wilderness. This is about saving Minnesota’s crown jewel of tourism. Which has led nine local businesses to sue the Department of Interior. They want Trump's decision reversed, calling it “unlawful” and “an immediate threat to small businesses, public health, jobs, clean water, wildlife, and the sporting and outdoor economy of Minnesota.”

One of those businesses is Northstar Canoe, a small manufacturer in Princeton. The company boasts 12 full-time employees and a smattering of part-time help. More than 90 percent of its advertising is focused on the Boundary Waters area. If the Boundary Waters doesn't exist, Northstar won't either.

Northstar and the other nine companies likely wouldn’t be the only casualty. According to a 2017 survey by Key Log Economics, mining in the Boundary Waters watershed would cost the almost 4,500 in local tourism jobs from the lost tourism spending. 

Compare this to the number of jobs created by the mining efforts: 427.

“The jobs thing is utterly upside-down,” Rom says.