Thursday, February 6, 2020
Posted by
Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters

Q&A: Fact checking the hearing on the HR5598

You might have heard a number of red herrings and falsehoods from those opposed to H.R. 5598 in yesterday’s hearing on Rep. McCollum’s bill, the Boundary Waters Permanent Protection and Pollution Prevention bill,. The Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters corrects the record:

Q: If we don’t do the Twin Metals mine in Minnesota, won’t that mean another mine with child labor will open elsewhere to meet demand? 
A: No, opening of a new mine has never resulted in the closure of an existing mine. This represents an expansion by Antofagasta into the U.S. - this mining company is not proposing to close any of its existing mines. Further, it has a terrible record in Chile. Antofagasta insists it will do it right in MN; why can’t it do that in Chile? Mining proponents should hold these global mining companies accountable for human rights and environmental sustainability everywhere they work, before welcoming them here.

Q: Taconite mining has been cleaned up so well, so copper mining clean up will be the same. What’s the problem?
A: Copper mining has a long history of pollution that dwarfs that of taconite mining. Iron ore is fundamentally oxidized (iron oxide) reducing its reactivity. That doesn’t mean it’s not polluting (see the MPCA’s pollution data for sulfate and specific conductance at HibTac and MinnTac).  In comparison to iron mining, however, sulfide-ore copper mining will be far, far more polluting, because the metals in the Duluth Complex are bound to sulfur (sulfide ores).  The chemical reactions of sulfide ores exposed to air and water are different, and produce acids that then leach toxic heavy metals from the Duluth Complex rock out into surface waters and groundwater.

Q: Don’t we need these minerals to ensure our national security?
A: Metals from Antofagasta’s proposed Twin Metals mine won’t go to America.  Antofagasta - the Chilean mining giant that owns Twin Metals - ships almost all of its metal concentrates to Asian companies where it is refined and sold (see page 42 of 2018 Annual Report).  The U.S. should not risk the Boundary Waters only to end up buying the copper back from China.  It’s an absurd idea, and does nothing for U.S. security.

Q: Why should all Americans (“outsiders,” as Congressman Stauber (R, MN-8) called bill propenents) get to decide whether the Boundary Waters is protected?
A: First,Superior National Forest and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness are American public lands of the very best quality, and all Americans own and have an interest in seeing them protected. Second, those that live closest to the proposed Twin Metals mine are opposed to it.  Polling conducted in 2018, by Donald Trump’s preferred polling firm, shows that 56% of residents in Congressman Stauber’s district (MN-8th) oppose the mine.  A February 2020 poll by the StarTribune and MPR showed the same results: 57% of residents in northern Minnesota oppose copper mining near the Boundary Waters. The suggestion Congressman Stauber makes -- that people up north prioritize copper mining over protecting the Boundary Waters -- is wrong.

Q: Hasn’t Minnesota always done mining safely?
A: Minnesota’s laws were not designed to protect an area as pristine as the Boundary Waters from the impacts of sulfide-ore copper mining in its headwaters and upstream of the Wilderness. Water quality in the Boundary Waters is the best in Minnesota, and any pollution will degrade it.  State standards for mining allow for pollution, and polluted waters from sulfide-ore copper mines would flow into the Boundary Waters. Once the pollution enters the Boundary Waters, it is impossible to contain the pollution or remove or mitigate the damage.  Minnesota’s legacy of mining is based on iron ore, and it is not without impacts (see here about Dunka Pit). There are significant water quality problems and violations associated with many of Minnesota’s iron mines. When asked if Twin Metals could guarantee no pollution, their spokesperson said, “That’s not a fair question.

Q: Why not let the project go through the regulatory process?
A: The legally proper federal process has been broken under the Trump administration. 

The first step in the process was to determine if Twin Metals federal mineral leases should be renewed. For two years, professional staff of the Forest Service conducted a thorough review of sulfide-ore copper mining in the watershed. It conducted numerous meetings in Minnesota and throughout the country. It provided a public comment period and public meetings. At the conclusion of this comprehensive process, the Forest Service determined that sulfide-ore copper mining poses an “unacceptable risk” to the Boundary Waters and withheld its consent to renewal of the leases. The leases were cancelled in 2016. This decision was unlawfully reversed by the Trump administration in 2018 for political purposes. 

Second, the proper process for determining if the public lands in the Boundary Waters headwaters should be withdrawn from the federal mining program was corrupted. For more than a hundred years, it has been the policy of the United States that we do not mine federal minerals that are located in valuable or vulnerable places. Scientific evidence shows that sulfide-ore copper mining in the headwaters would pose an unacceptable risk of harm to the Boundary Waters, the most popular Wilderness Area in America. Because of this, the Forest Service applied for and undertook a mineral withdrawal study pursuant to federal law to determine if mining on federal lands and minerals in the watershed of the Boundary Waters should be banned.  The study was nearly completed when it was suddenly cancelled by direction of the White House for purely political reasons.

Q: Isn’t the mine needed for jobs?
A: Unemployment in NE Minnesota is around 4% (see Page 6) - in other words, there is a labor shortage in Northern Minnesota, not a job shortage.  Further, economic research by prominent economists has shown that a Twin Metals mine would result in FEWER jobs and LESS income than if the existing diverse and sustainable economy continued to grow. If copper mining were to be allowed, it is not surprising that copper mining would cause people to leave the area and find other places to live and vacation. Over the life of a Twin Metals mine, there will be less economic activity in the Ely area with the mine than without. The wilderness-based economy of the Boundary Waters region has accomplished something state leaders have been trying to do for years - diversify the economy beyond just mining. Tourism and the larger amenity-based economy* that is rooted in the Boundary Waters, provide important diversification, resilience to economic downturns, and steady growth each year as the population increases and wilderness areas become more valued. Twin Metals has also said that much of its workforce will come from out of state and out of the country. 

Q: Isn’t copper recyclable?
A: Yes, copper is one of the most recyclable (and recycled) of all metals, and companies like Apple are committing to ensuring that more recycling takes place.

Q: Don’t most Minnesotans support mining? 
A: Most Minnesotans support iron or taconite mining. BUT, an overwhelming majority of Minnesotans oppose sulfide-ore copper mining on the edge of the Boundary Waters.  A 2018 poll of Minnesotans conducted by President Trump’s pollster found that more than 70% of Minnesotans oppose this project. In a February 2020 poll by the StarTribune and MPR, 60% of Minnesotans oppose this project. When asked if providing jobs or protecting the environment was more important when it comes to mining, 66% statewide and 60% in northern Minnesota said the environment was a higher priority.

Q: Doesn’t the dry stacking of tailings make this environmentally benign?
A: No!  So-called “dry stacking” - or piling of the 99.5% of ground up rock that remains after most copper and nickel are extracted - was developed for arid and arctic environments.  It is a dangerous practice in wet environments (like northern MN). The method was rejected by the Minnesota DNR in 2018 because dry stacking increases potential for generation of acid conditions and leaching of heavy metals, increases the spread of pollutants from wind-borne dust, and requires perpetual collection and treatment of seepage (see Findings of Fact beginning on page 97), and because of the high likelihood of re-saturation of the tailings dump in Minnesota’s wet environment would lead to leaching of acid mine drainage.  The pile of toxic tailings would cover 430 acres, and reach a height of130 feet tall. It would tower over the forest, be visible for miles, and present an extreme and permanent risk of failure and pollution to the Boundary Waters.  The four mines pointed to by Twin Metals as models for dry-stacking have all polluted both water and land.

*Amenity-based development is economic activity in a host of industries, including recreation/tourism, but also construction, personal and professional services, retail, and others that arrives or stays in a region for the sake of its scenic, recreational, environmental, and quality-of-life amenities. These amenities induce an in-migration (and support the retention) of human capacity (entrepreneurs, skilled workers) that is the real engine of economic development. Amenities also attract and retain consumers, including retirees and working-age people who could do their jobs anywhere, but who would prefer to live in a place with a high quality of life.


Read the statements from those of testified at the H.R. 5598 hearing:

Statement from Tom Tidwell
Former Chief of the U.S. Forest Service

Statement from Jason Zabokrtsky
Owner of Ely Outfitting Company 

Statement from Land Tawney 
President and CEO of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers