The land

In Sunday’s newspaper, Josephine Marcotty offered a well-rounded look at controversial new mining proposals in northeastern Minnesota, much of it at the doorstep of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. I have been reading, talking, and writing about sulfide mining for three-and-a-half years now. I am convinced that the extraction of copper, nickel and other metals in the Arrowhead would forever harm large swaths of our state. And the money and minerals do not outweigh that risk.

In her article, Marcotty said Minnesota is facing “its biggest environmental decision in a generation: Whether to open its arms to hard-rock mining, an industry that could bring thousands of jobs -- and a record of environmental calamities -- to the wildest and most beautiful corner of the state.”

This is indeed a decision for all Minnesotans to make. The Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness has been working for years to educate citizens, to raise awareness of what is proposed and what it could mean for Minnesota’s clean water, and to ensure we act as the good stewards of our land and water that previous generations did. This is necessary so our kids and grandkids will be able to drink from the lake on BWCAW trips, to eat fresh-caught fish, and to wander trackless woods.

This past weekend, the Friends met with officials from Twin Metals along Highway 1, near the Kawishiwi River and Birch Lake, to see where the company -- a partnership between junior mining company Duluth Metals and Chilean mining giant Antofagasta -- is doing exploratory drilling and to learn more about their plans. The group spent a couple hours touring the woods, talking and asking a lot of questions.


The Twin Metals employees said they intend to build a mine that will not pollute. They didn’t try to convince the Friends representatives in two short hours to forget their concerns, but rather listened and promised continued dialogue. They also spoke at length of “new, modern technology” and a commitment to “doing it right.” They believe they can do this without harming some of our state’s most cherished natural places.

The fact is that nobody opens up a mine planning to pollute. But yet it happens again and again. A 2006 study of such mines found that at least 85 percent of mines in wet environments like Minnesota caused unanticipated pollution.

Copper and nickel are sold on global markets at global prices. Unfortunately, in other countries, there are few environmental protections. This means metals can be mined cheaply, and sold cheaply. Those metals are what Twin Metals, PolyMet and others would have to compete with if they mine in Minnesota. Doing it right affects the bottom line, and digging deep below the earth to extract widely-scattered minerals is expensive in the first place. Preventing pollution carries price tags.

Twin Metals wants to mine in the forests of Stony River Township, near Ely. Something happened in the township two weeks ago that didn’t get much notice. Maybe it was overshadowed by the Pagami Creek Fire news, or maybe the weight of the event just didn’t register. The township’s board of supervisors unanimously passed a resolution calling on Minnesota to enact a moratorium on sulfide mining, and short of that, not allow any mining in the township.

Residents of the township have been hearing from the company and other mining proponents for years and after much consideration, decided they wanted to keep their community the way it is, a rural lake district, not one overrun by trucks and blasting and pollution. In a Duluth News-Tribune article about the resolution (subscription required), one of the supervisors who voted for it said it simply and said it best, “We’ve got clean water and a healthy forest and we want to keep it that way.”

The resolution is non-binding. State and federal governments will ultimately decide whether or not Twin Metals ever mines. But the supervisors of Stony River Township, and the community members who encouraged the resolution, have given an answer to this great environmental decision our state faces: Clean water will always be more valuable than any precious metal.


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Private property or precious metals?