Twin Metals' hazardous mine moves ever closer to the Boundary Waters

Backy Rom of Save the Boundary Waters says the new plan brings hazardous waste closer to one of America's most pristine waterways.

Backy Rom of Save the Boundary Waters says the new plan brings hazardous waste closer to one of America's most pristine waterways. Star Tribune

In the final days of his presidency, Barack Obama’s Agriculture and Interior Departments decided not to renew mining leases in the Superior National Forest next to the Boundary Waters -- Minnesota’s beloved wilderness playground for canoers and backpackers. They proposed keeping 234,000 acres of the land un-mined for 20 years.

The U.S. Forest Service was also ordered to launch a two-year environmental analysis to determine whether sulfide ore mining would wreck the Boundary Waters.

But there’s a new president in the White House now, and so far, his administration has been much more amenable to Team Mining. It reversed the order that restricted mining, and it scaled back the study.

Then, like the gloppy demon in Fern Gully emerging from the tree that once imprisoned him, Twin Metals renewed old leases that would allow it to build a copper-nickel mine near Ely. 

Now environmentalists are facing a decision that’s gone from bad to worse. Twin Metals not only wants to build its mine. It wants to build it closer to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness than originally planned.

The new plans would put the facility right on the banks of Birch Lake, one of Minnesota’s most popular tourist destinations. Environmentalists are worried the mine will leech toxic metals into anything that comes into contact with it: Water, birds, plants, people. If the mine’s approved, it will process 20,000 tons of ore a day.

Lauren Eggert of Save the Boundary Waters says they knew Twin Metals was coming, but they were a little shocked to see them move closer to Birch Lake.

“I’ve seen a lot of people outraged [by the announcement],” she says. “They’re waking up to what’s happening.”

Becky Rom of Ely, head of Save the Boundary Waters, is also not thrilled. Putting aside the clear-cutting on previously untouched nature, it’s also moving toxic waste closer to one of America’s premier wilderness areas.

A byproduct of this particular kind of mining is sulfide-bearing ore. That stuff’s relatively harmless when it’s in the ground, she says. But when it’s exposed to air, rain, and snow, whatever runs off turns into sulfuric acid.

Save the Boundary Waters has the science showing that sulfide ore mining would pollute the water, she says. Furthermore, they have a survey showing 70 percent of Minnesotans oppose this kind of mining.

Rom doesn’t think the state is going to take this lying down. She says she “can’t see Americans letting a Chilean mining company pollute the Boundary Waters” when they can just look for metal somewhere else.

“The world is awash in copper,” Rom says. But there’s only one Boundary Waters.