Copper-nickel mining has never been done in Minnesota before.
It's a delicate procedure. Those minerals are trapped in sulfide-rich rock which, when cracked open and mixed with air and water, produces sulfuric acid. If that stuff gets into Minnesota's lakes and streams, it would be the end of days for fish and flora.
Still, Twin Metals Minnesota and its Chilean parent company, Antofagasta, want to start copper-nickel mining in Ely, right at the edge of the Boundary Waters and Voyageurs National Park.
Gov. Mark Dayton thinks that's crazy. About two-thirds of Minnesotans surveyed in February by liberal pollster Anzalone Liszt Grove Research agreed with him. And now hunting and fishing groups representing some 6 million members have signed a letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, asking for permanent protection of the Boundary Waters.
The Boundary Waters, with its 1,200 miles of canoe routes, is "home to some of the finest remote angling and hunting our country has to offer," the letter states. "Sportsmen and women venture into the Boundary Waters in pursuit of walleye, bass, pike, trout, bear, deer, grouse, and more."
In order to save the walleye, the deer, and the grouse, the groups want the feds to not renew mining leases, which expired in 2013, that allow Twin Metals to drill in the Superior National Forest. They also want the Boundary Waters delisted from the federal mineral leasing program entirely.
If Twin Metals is allowed to start copper-nickel mining in Ely, pollution to the Boundary Waters is virtually inevitable, says Jeremy Drucker of Save the Boundary Waters.
"It's just one of the most toxic industries done in America, and to put something like that on the doorstep to the Boundary Waters is just an accident waiting to happen," he says. "There's evidence that even under normal mining conditions, sulfuric acid could leak out into the waterways. But the worst thing that could possibly happen is some kind of dam failure that causes us to just dump billions of gallons of toxic water into the Boundary Waters."
Just two years ago, that exact thing happened at the Mt. Polley Mine in British Columbia. A dam breached and released about 5 billion gallons of toxic slurry into a glacial lake, ruining the lake and destroying a priceless salmon spawning area.
Outdoor recreation produces about $850 million in revenues and 17,000 jobs for northeastern Minnesota every year, according to Save the Boundary Waters. The proposed copper-nickel mine would create bout 850 full-time jobs when it's in operation, according to Twin Metals.