Current state laws and regulations need a booster shot if we want to protect the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA) from extensive permanent damage that would result from sulfide-ore copper mining in the wilderness watershed.
For decades, Minnesotans have relied on strong federal protections and environmental laws to protect our wilderness crown jewel — its clean air and water, wildlife, forested landscape and other natural resources.
These bedrock federal environmental regulations, however, are rapidly being eviscerated — the Trump administration is aggressively gutting these regulations while Americans are distracted by a global pandemic, an economic recession and an awareness of the need for greater social justice. With the federal backstop gone and a federal administration fast-tracking a highly polluting copper mine on its doorstep, the BWCA is at greater risk than ever before. Now more than ever, we need officials in the Walz administration to reject a Twin Metals sulfide-ore mine and modernize its regulations to exclude sulfide-ore copper mining from the watershed of the BWCA.
In 2016 the U.S. Forest Service concluded beyond any doubt that copper mining near the BWCA posed an unacceptable risk of irreparable damage to this priceless wilderness and canceled Chilean mining conglomerate Antofagasta’s Twin Metals project. Through a well-documented series of tricks and schemes the Trump administration revived the project and drove it forward, ignoring the rule of law, sidelining science and hiding the evidence from Congress, the press and the public.
The Trump administration has weakened or flat-out eliminated one hundred environmental protections, many with direct roles in protecting the clean air and water of Minnesota. For example, changes to critical Clean Water Act regulations mean that Minnesota can no longer protect its own lakes, streams and wetlands from degradation. In response, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency wrote: “It is likely that a second copper nickel mining facility [Chilean mining conglomerate Antofagasta’s Twin Metals] will be proposed and begin environmental review ... in Minnesota; EPA’s proposed rule would leave us unable to address potential water quality concerns in or near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.” Other actions eliminating protections include a presidential executive order that directs agencies to waive or restrict environmental laws and reviews of risky projects. Taken together these represent the most sweeping and significant attacks on the environment in history, and leave Minnesota and the BWCA especially vulnerable.
With this backdrop, the state is presented with a mine plan from Twin Metals that is significantly more dangerous than the one it touted just a year ago. Not only does the plan suffer from all the endemic issues that plague an industry the Environmental Protection Agency has repeatedly identified as the most toxic in America, but it also calls for the storage of hundreds of millions of tons of toxic waste on state land immediately adjacent to the waters of Birch Lake, which flow into the Boundary Waters. In a preliminary review of the mine plan, the DNR found it to be incomplete and to contain material misrepresentations of critical facts.
The state must act or the heart will be cut out of Minnesota’s great North Woods. To spur action, on June 24, Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness, which leads the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, filed a lawsuit asking that the court order the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to revise its “nonferrous mining” rules to prohibit sulfide-ore copper mining in the watershed of the Boundary Waters. Because the science is indisputable that sulfide-ore copper mining next to and upstream from the Boundary Waters would degrade every aspect of the wilderness, if Minnesota is to prevent degradation it must prohibit upstream sulfide-ore mining.
We live in uncertain times. Amid unprecedented crises and a looming presidential election, the Trump administration is trying to steal everything that is not nailed down before its regime possibly comes to an end — including the BWCA. The Walz administration must act now to protect the world’s greatest canoe country wilderness.
Tom Landwehr is the former commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources and current executive director of Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness.