RELEASE: Department of Natural Resources approves exploratory drilling plan next to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness

Oct 31, 2023
Libby London
For Immediate Release
October 31, 2023
Contact: Libby London (612) 227-8407
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Department of Natural Resources approves exploratory drilling plan next to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness

(Ely, MN) – Franconia Minerals’ plan to drill just upstream of the Boundary Waters was approved late yesterday afternoon by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Franconia Minerals, a subsidiary of Twin Metals Minnesota LLC, is undertaking this exploratory drilling to advance a mine under Birch Lake, which flows directly into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Birch Lake is a well-known waterbody used to produce wild rice and is a popular recreation site in the Superior National Forest. In January, the Biden Administration withdrew federal lands and minerals in the watershed of the Boundary Waters from the federal mining program for 20 years. Twin Metals is a subsidiary of Chilean mining conglomerate Antofagasta plc.

Ingrid Lyons, Executive Director of Save the Boundary Waters, stated:

“We are disappointed that the Department of Natural Resources approved this exploratory drilling plan, but it makes one thing crystal clear: we urgently need permanent protection for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and its watershed. Twin Metals has pried open the door to drilling on vulnerable state and private lands next to the Boundary Waters, short-circuiting our ongoing Minnesota Environmental Rights Act (MERA) lawsuit.”

Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness (NMW), founder and lead organization of Save the Boundary Waters, eagerly awaits a contested case hearing for their Minnesota Environmental Rights Act (MERA) lawsuit in the spring. That process is ongoing and will include a decision on whether any sulfide-ore copper mining should be allowed at all in the watershed of the Boundary Waters due to the high risk of water, light, air, and noise pollution impacting the Wilderness.

“The greenlighting of this proposal means that by next paddling season, noises of drilling, blasting, machinery, heavy traffic, and more will drown out the natural sounds of our Northwoods - eviscerating the quiet solitude that makes the Boundary Waters America’s most visited Wilderness Area,” said Ingrid Lyons, Executive Director of Save the Boundary Waters.

In recent years, when exploratory activity has been conducted by copper mining companies around Birch Lake and the Kawishiwi River near the Boundary Waters, there has been significant disruption to the wilderness setting – to the dismay of local homeowners, businesses, and wilderness programs such as Voyageurs Outward Bound School. Wilderness-edge businesses, homeowners, and travelers into the federally protected Wilderness area reported intrusive noises such as drilling, helicopters, explosions, machinery and truck traffic, low constant rumbling, and more. These disruptions severely impacted the experience that most people seek in this natural area.

In June 2020, Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness filed a lawsuit under the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act (MERA) wherein NMW argues that Minnesota’s non-ferrous mining rules are inadequate to protect the Boundary Waters. This action is currently pending, and in its May 31, 2023 Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law, and Order issued as part of this action, DNR determined that Minnesota’s regulations on noise and light were inadequate to protect the Boundary Waters from mining activities in the Boundary Waters watershed and ordered rulemaking to expand the State’s Mineral Management Corridor. NMW has challenged the DNR’s findings that sulfide-ore copper mining will not degrade water quality, which is contrary to modern scientific studies. The regulatory change that would protect the Boundary Waters is to prohibit sulfide-ore copper mining in the Boundary Waters watershed. This is especially true because current pollution standards in Minnesota rules would allow significant damage to the clean water flowing into the Boundary Waters and the surrounding forested landscape. NMW is the only organization that brought this case and will be defending Minnesota’s Wilderness in the upcoming MERA contested case hearing.

In 2023, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness received an official “Wilderness Quiet Park” award in recognition of the Wilderness’ natural soundscape, largely free from artificial noise – a true rarity worldwide today. Quiet Parks International conducted testing and analyzed the data throughout 2021 and 2022 to determine the Boundary Waters meets the criteria as a quiet place. Using high-sensitivity microphones, sound-pressure level meters, and other tools, researchers found that the soundscape is significantly free from sounds other than nature for intervals of hours at a time, and does not typically experience noise from such sources as commercial air traffic, military activity, mining or other extractive activity, or other startling and disruptive sounds.

Peer-reviewed and published research in the Journal of Hydrology shows that pollution from a Twin Metals mine would move through surface and groundwater flows to the Boundary Waters. In the study, Dr. Myers stated: “If sulfide mines are developed in the Rainy Headwaters [part of the Boundary Waters watershed], it is not a question of whether, but when, a leak will occur that will have major impacts on the water quality of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.”