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Protesters plead to save the Boundary Waters from copper mine pollution

Rocco Bonelllo was among those hoping to save Minnesota's greatest home of pristine wilderness.

Rocco Bonelllo was among those hoping to save Minnesota's greatest home of pristine wilderness. Hannah Jones

Rocco Bonello of Minneapolis ambled down the path to the Capitol in St. Paul. With his raincoat on and a single paddle in his hand, he looked like he was going to ford his way in. But the paddle wasn’t meant for transport. Today, it was company.

The surface is decorated with a silhouette of a man jumping into a lake. That, Bonello says, is an old friend of his, straight from a photograph of a trip to the Boundary Waters. The friend had been the first to take Bonello to the crystal-clear chain of lakes in northern Minnesota. They're known as the state’s “crown jewel” for their quiet, untouched wilderness.

Bonello’s friend has since passed away, but he carried the paddle with him so they’d be together in spirit. They were about to join a crowd of cheering protesters inside the Capitol, many of them carrying signs that said “Save the Boundary Waters” and “Keep public lands in public hands.” They’d gathered because they wanted Minnesota lawmakers to stop what they see as certain doom for their favorite place in the world.

Screams and cheers blasted out of the Rotunda throughout the protest.

Screams and cheers blasted out of the Rotunda throughout the protest. Hannah Jones

Twin Metals – a mining company owned by Chilean conglomerate Antofagasta Minerals – wants to set up a copper and nickel mining operation near the Boundary Waters. Back in 2016, it couldn’t. The Obama administration cut the company off by denying its mineral leases on the land.

In 2017, the Trump administration reversed those restrictions and abruptly canceled a two-year study on the potential harm of copper mining. Ever since, it’s been a tense wait as Twin Metals attempted to renew its leases and set up shop.

That wait is now over. Last week, the Trump administration renewed the leases, which lit a fire under the Save the Boundary Waters crowd. The time to prevent catastrophe is quickly running out.

“I feel like just one bad move is going to wreck the whole thing, because the lakes are all connected,” Bonello says.

There’s good reason to be concerned. The copper Twin Metals is after is hidden inside sulfur-bearing rocks, which must be pulverized to give up their goods. Once you put a bunch of smashed copper ore in a stockpile or a waste pit, it just takes a little rain or snow runoff to produce a toxic byproduct: sulfuric acid. Many mines around the world have tried to do this safely, without impacting the surrounding environment. They've universally failed. 

Twin Metals is asking critics to reserve judgment – at least until it releases its new plan, which will include details about how it plans to stop deadly poison from leeching into the Boundary Waters. Still, the protesters – and Democratic U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum of St. Paul – would rather see the federal government complete the abandoned study showing all the potential risks.

Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters has been scrambling to get lawmakers to stop Twin Metals' mining operation.

Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters has been scrambling to get lawmakers to stop Twin Metals' mining operation. Hannah Jones

The wilderness lovers who gathered in the rotunda hope Washington will heed their warnings and see the benefit of keeping the waters clean. They also dropped a petition with nearly 200,000 signatures on Gov. Tim Walz’s desk for good measure.

Some lawmakers – like U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber (R-Hermantown) – would rather see mining go off without a hitch, touting the revenue and high-paying jobs that go with it. He told McCollum it was “disappointing” to hear a colleague from the Twin Cities “ignore the will of my constituents and halt mining in northern Minnesota.”

“Economically, in the long term, it makes more sense to keep it recreational,” Mark Finch of Excelsior said at the rally. He’s been visiting the Boundary Waters since he was 16. An independent study notes that mining out the Superior National Forest would actually be less economically beneficial than maintaining it as a popular attraction.

To many Minnesotans, it’s more than just a place that makes a lot of money.

“It’s a place where you can find peace,” Bonello says. “No place has ever been like it.”