Keep the “Great Northwoods” Great
Over the next several weeks Minnesota 2020 will run a series of columns focusing on environmental policy issues. This is part of our continuing collaboration with Macalester College's Environmental Studies Department and its students.
I have fond childhood memories of canoe trips taken with my family in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in northeastern Minnesota. I loved the deep blue lakes, breathtaking scenery, and sounds of nature that surrounded me. I am not the only person who enjoys the great North woods. Tourism in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, or the BWCA, brings in $700 million a year. Unfortunately for nature lovers such as myself, this pristine wilderness is threatened by sulfide mining.
In nature, metals such as copper and nickel combine with sulfur to form metal sulfides. Sulfide mining is the procedure of first extracting these sulfides from the ground; and then, separating the metals from the sulfur through various chemical and mechanical processes. In Minnesota, the main concentration of sulfide ores is in the northeastern tip. These sulfide deposits contain metals such as copper and nickel, which are important to many national industries, such as the stainless steel industry. The US government would like to expand national sources for the metals, instead of importing them.
While the industrial and economic benefits of mining are high, so are the environmental risks. One of the main problems with sulfide mining is its dangerous byproduct -sulfuric acid. All the ore in Minnesota must be dug out from underground. The process of extracting the ore removes the groundwater surrounding it, exposing it to oxygen. Exposure to oxygen, followed by another exposure to water causes the sulfides in the ore to undergo a chemical process that produces sulfuric acid. Sulfuric acid is highly corrosive and harmful to any living creature that encounters it.
The World Health Organization’s International Programme on Chemical Safety even has strict instructions to not let any sulfuric acid into the environment, especially because it causes water contamination. Not only can sulfuric acid leach into water, but due to its highly corrosive nature, it also dissolves heavy metals from rocks surrounding the leakage area. Combined, the sulfuric acid and heavy metals contaminate the water, making it toxic. The contamination is called acid mine drainage. Acid mine drainage in environmentally devastating, and it can affect a water system for decades.
There are two main proposed mines near the Boundary Waters. The first mine, operated by Twin Metals, is located near Ely. The second mine is operated by PolyMet and is near Hoyt Lakes. Any drainage occurring near the Twin Metals site would affect the BWCA, while drainage from the PolyMet site would indirectly run into Lake Superior. The environmental impact of such pollution would be overwhelming. Both companies have taken new measures, such as isolating the ore in plastic sheets, to try to ensure that sulfuric acid creation and acid mine drainage will not occur. Unfortunately, there has never been a sulfide mine that did not pollute, and other states and countries have been forced to pay for the clean up of the sulfide mining pollution. These new methods have never been tested in an environment. The BWCA is too fragile and precious to be a guinea pig for the companies’ plans.
Another serious problem with sulfide mining is noise pollution. Since the ore deposits are underground, mining companies use incredibly loud drills to reach them. Noise pollution is problematic for both mine sites, but is especially challenging for the Twin Metals site, since it is so close to BWCA. The noise from the site will chase off both wildlife and tourists. Andy Fisher, a resort owner southeast of Ely, reports that the noise of the mining rigs will ruin the peaceful silence and solitude the BWCA is known for, in addition to scaring away wildlife that attracts tourists. We value the BWCA for its peaceful silence, abundant wildlife, and beautiful natural landscapes. We should not ruin these attributes with the noise and acid that sulfide mining produces.
In 1998, Wisconsin signed a moratorium on mining projects. The law stated that mining projects would only be considered if a mine site had operated for ten years without any type of drainage, and had been closed for ten years without any pollution. A law such as this could help protect the BWCA from the hazards of sulfide mining.
Laws are not the only things that can be done about sulfide mining, however. There are many organizations dedicated to keeping sulfide mining out of Minnesota. If you want to help protect the BWCA, you can join organizations, such as Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, which are dedicated to keeping northern Minnesota uncontaminated by sulfide mining. Visitors have enjoyed the pristine wilderness of the BWCA for over forty years. Let us give them another forty years to enjoy, and keep sulfide mining out of the BWCA.