I grew up a mile outside Babbitt, on the south side of Finn Bay, the west end of Birch Lake. The lake and woods deserve devotion. In 1964, when the sulfide-bonded minerals (copper, nickel, platinum, palladium, gold) were discovered near Spruce Road and the narrows where the Kawishiwi River enters Birch Lake, I planned to place my body between the bulldozers and the shores.
Now, 50 years later, test drilling has begun. Where is my heroic stance?
I have recognized complexity. Sulfide mining has a better chance of killing the lake and all that depends on it than it does of leaving the waters healthy. However: climate.
The woods and the lake are ill. The moose die. Invasive species move in. (I dig hawkweed, kill reed canary, day after day in summer.) Animals are fewer. Tent caterpillars infest more fiercely. We who have watched know this: Climate disruption is killing these woods, and it will destroy the Boundary Waters. Predictions are that by century’s end we will have the weather of Kansas. Grievously, climate disruption will not calm once northern Minnesota becomes grassland.
Will you work fiercely to prevent, mitigate and prepare these woods for climate catastrophe? Sulfide mining has an 80 percent record of ruining land. The 20 percent odds of non-ruination are better than the 0 percent chance of escaping destruction should climate disruption run wild. If we pass carbon taxes, if we drastically reduce airplane flights, car trips, computers and cellphones … we will also slow the production of mine trucks, the driving of mine trucks, the production of computers to run mines. We would put a damper on mining.
However, we should mine some. We use more than half of the palladium for catalytic converters (the rest for cancer treatment, dental bridges, computers, groundwater treatment). We need platinum for solar panels.
Of course, we can get these minerals elsewhere — the Transvaal Basin in South Africa, the Norilsk Complex in Russia, the Stillwater Complex of Montana and the Ontario area north of Thunder Bay. Check the Norilsk Complex and the Transvaal Basin online and you may refuse your next palladium crown.
I cannot respect myself if I protect my own lake while using a catalytic converter that destroys someone else’s life and homeland.
Minnesota’s leaders are somewhat nature-alert. Sulfates continually leach into dozens of old ferrous mine pit lakes as well as into natural waterways. In the past, nothing ensured restoration of mined land. Now, prospective mining interests are required to clean the sulfate-laden waters left behind by past mining. My brother and my nephew are among those using natural processes to remove sulfates from mining-impaired waters, because now public agencies, academic institutions and, primarily, legally constrained PolyMet provide funding.
What else ought we require? Our old mines could be restored to healthy wild and wetland areas (maybe, given climate stress, to grassland). If we refuse future mining, how will we fund reclamation work?
Will we stop mining forever? These minerals will not magically disappear, and the world knows where they are.
We face a tragic dilemma. Our way of life destroys our Earth’s fabric. How will we become a people who do not ruin five distant lives while trying to improve one life nearby? If I sign on for cancer treatment for my child, do I think, “I’m willing to fill a beaver’s home with sulfide waters so long as my own child lives”? When we fly to a family reunion, do we think: “My get-together is more important than a boreal swamp”?
We are in a mess. Let’s work together without drama. Let’s acknowledge complexity. The people in my hometown are not your enemies; don’t make them such. We are the ones who can, who must, face the dilemma we are in.
We are the bad guys, but we are also the good guys — and so, my friends, are the miners.
Ranae Hanson is a faculty member at Minneapolis Community and Technical College.