HEALTH RISKS NEED TO BE CONSIDERED WHEN DECIDING ABOUT SULFIDE-ORE COPPER MINING
Over the past few years, the medical community in Minnesota has raised an unprecedented voice of concern in response to sulfide-ore copper mining, such as that proposed by PolyMet and Twin Metals. The Minnesota Medical Association, Minnesota Academy of Family Physicians, Minnesota Nurses Association, Minnesota Public Health Organization along with dozens of individual providers, and non-profit groups with ties to human health all submitted letters in response to the one Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) done for sulfide-ore copper mining in Minnesota. The consensus by all of these groups representing over 30,000 healthcare professionals in our state is that an independent Health Impact Assessment (HIA) be mandated as part of an EIS necessary for decisions regarding sulfide-ore copper mining.
Let us state here that we are not writing about the taconite mining industry, which has played and continues to play an important part in Minnesota’s history, economy, and culture. Sulfide-ore copper mining is a toxic industry with a very poor track record of success. A peer-reviewed Earthworks study in 2012 showed that 100% of modern US copper mines that had operated for 5 years or more had already polluted water. Several years can pass before leaks are detected. “Modern mining technology” that has been promised to be “safe” has not proven itself successful.
The World Health Organization lists the ten environmental toxins with greatest concern to human health, and sulfide-ore copper mining releases at least six of these - mercury, lead, arsenic, particulate air pollution, asbestos, and cadmium. Sulfide-ore copper mining also releases sulfates, which fuel the chemical reactions that transform mercury to its toxic form methylmercury.
These toxins have known harmful effects to human health including cancer, lung disease, heart disease, and neurodevelopmental diseases (dyslexia and other learning disorders, intellectual disabilities, autism, and ADHD among them). Babies from gestation through age three are especially vulnerable due to their rapidly growing brains, which have a high affinity for these heavy metals.
Not only will the water quality suffer, but so too the air. Due to releases of fine particulates, asbestos, and asbestos-like particles, sulfide-ore copper mining in the Superior National Forest (SNF) on the doorstep to the BWCA would be expected to cause degradation of the air quality in a significant portion of the Boundary Waters, potentially endangering miners, members of the community, and visitors to the area.
Given these still-present concerns, it is time again to raise our voices regarding the current decisions being made in Washington DC regarding the SNF “mineral withdrawal” (note that the terminology in the current federal process is confusing – withdrawal does not refer to mineral extraction, but rather to withdrawal of parcels of federal land from mining eligibility) in the Rainy River watershed. The outcome of the current process will directly affect our state’s crown jewel, the Boundary Waters Wilderness.
In short, unless protections are given to the sensitive area under study, there remains potential for a large, industrial sulfide-ore copper mining site on the banks of the Kawishiwi River at the headwaters of the BWCA. Any toxic leachate would enter the Kawishiwi River and then flow north into the heart of the BWCA and ultimately into the Rainy River and Canada.
To guard against these insidious health effects, we are urging the US Forest Service to do a comprehensive and robust Environmental Assessment regarding mineral lease withdrawal in the Rainy River watershed, specifically in regard to the risks to human health. This must include modeling for “less than ideal” releases similar to that seen in other sulfide-ore copper mines rather than limiting the modeling to the “best case scenario” often promised but never accomplished.
It is also imperative that this assessment include not only the potential negative effects of a sulfide-ore copper mine in this water-rich area, but also include an assessment of the economic and cultural benefits of the current region as it stands and the risks/costs of what will be lost with the development of such mining at the headwaters of the BWCA. It is our opinion that a robust EA including these components will clearly demonstrate that mineral withdrawal in the Rainy River watershed is necessary to protect the health and wellness of this sensitive and special region of our state.
We travelled to Washington, DC recently and voiced our concerns about these health impacts. Now more than ever, we need concerned Minnesotans to raise their voices, and we ask you to join us. Please go to the following website https://www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=50938 and submit a comment under “Comment/Object on Project”.
John Ipsen, MD PhD
Jennifer Pearson, MD
Steven Sutherland, MD
Kris Wegerson, MD
The Boundary Waters has never needed us more than it needs us now. The wild, natural heart and soul of Minnesota are at stake. Do we want the Boundary Waters and the rest of our beautiful, healthy Arrowhead forests, lakes, and rivers to continue to be the magnet that draws scores of thousands of visitors from around the country and the world every year, with the resulting enrichment of lives and of the economies of Ely, Grand Marais, Tofte, and other Wilderness-edge communities - indeed, of the economy of Minnesota as a whole? Or would we rather have a Chilean mining company, Antofagasta/Twin Metals, begin the development of a vast industrial sulfide-ore mining district in the heart of the Superior National Forest on the doorstep of our priceless Wilderness?
The Trump Administration has taken two actions recently that make the job of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters harder. The Administration decided (i) to create justification for the reissuance of mining leases that were denied by the Obama Administration and (ii) to downgrade the U.S. Forest Service environmental review for the proposed twenty-year withdrawal of 234,328 acres of the public’s land in the Superior National Forest from the federal mineral leasing program. The Campaign intends to prevail over these setbacks with the help of Campaign partners and their millions of supporters.
First, the Trump Administration Department of the Interior, under Secretary Ryan Zinke, issued a legal opinion on December 22, 2017 that reverses earlier opinions that held that Twin Metals had no right to have old mining leases automatically renewed. If the mining leases were automatically renewable, Twin Metals would be able to avoid legally-required scientific study of the environmental effect of issuing leases for mining in the areas covered by the leases on the South Kawishiwi River and Birch Lake in the Boundary Waters watershed. The Campaign and its pro bono legal counsel believe that the Trump decision is clearly wrong, and we will file a lawsuit in federal court seeking to have the decision overturned. The language of the leases themselves, the federal laws that govern mineral leasing, and statements in the mining company’s own documents prove that Twin Metals has no automatic right of renewal.
Second, the U.S. Forest Service’s request in January 2017 that the Secretary of the Interior withdraw from the federal leasing program all federally-owned minerals in the Rainy River Drainage Basin, which includes the watershed of the Boundary Waters, triggered a legal requirement for environmental review of the environmental, social, and economic effects if sulfide-ore mining were permitted on federally-owned minerals in the Basin. Recognizing that the Boundary Waters is priceless and vulnerable, and fully cognizant of the poisonous water pollution and landscape destruction that always accompany sulfide-ore copper mining, the Forest Service began the process of developing a full environmental impact statement. An EIS provides for a thorough analysis (i) of relevant scientific studies of the impact that sulfide-ore mining would have on the ecology of the Boundary Waters and (ii) of the economic and social impacts of the destruction of a large part of the Superior National Forest and the pollution of Boundary Waters lakes and rivers. An EIS also provides for multiple opportunities for the public to comment during the process.
In another misguided decision, on January 26, 2018 the Trump Administration downgraded the legally-mandated environmental review of the proposed minerals withdrawal from a full EIS to a less-rigorous “environmental assessment.” One of the many negative results of the downgrade is a reduced opportunity for public comment. The Superior National Forest lands at issue belong to all the people of the United States, not to a Chilean mining company with a history of environmental violations and multiple alleged instances of corruption, its allied politicians, and the tiny handful of people who would benefit economically from a Boundary Waters mine.
A second negative result is that an EA may be a less rigorous and comprehensive analysis of the unique ecology of the Boundary Waters region – those very qualities that make the watershed both valuable as the world’s greatest canoe country wilderness and vulnerable to the inevitable and irreparable damage of sulfide-ore copper mining. An EA may not fully document the harm to Wilderness-edge communities, the State of Minnesota, and all people that would result if a large swath of Superior National Forest lands, now ecologically healthy and available for a variety of uses, were converted to a massive industrial mining district. An EA may not fully document the failure of project-specific environmental reviews to accurately predict water pollution generated by hardrock mines near surface and ground waters; those studies are wrong 90% of the time. And an EA may not fully document that all copper mines, including modern copper mines in the United States, pollute water. A full EIS, on the other hand, would document that the only way to protect the Boundary Waters from the ravages of sulfide-ore copper mining is to ban mining on public lands in the watershed of the Boundary Waters.
The Campaign is determined to prevent sulfide-ore copper mining on federal lands in the Boundary Waters watershed. With your help, the Campaign will succeed. Together, this is what we must do:
Together we must fight every effort to damage the Boundary Waters. And together we will prevail.
On Tuesday November 7, Wisconsin lawmakers eager to promote sulfide-ore copper mining passed and sent a bill to repeal that state’s “Prove it First” sulfide mining moratorium law to Governor Walker’s desk. The Prove-it-First law was passed in 1998 and obligates any company seeking a Wisconsin mining permit to show first that a single sulfide-ore mine anywhere in the U.S. or Canada has operated for at least 10 years and been closed for at least 10 years without polluting surrounding water. Since the law’s passage, no new sulfide-ore copper mine has been developed in Wisconsin.
Of course, there would be no need to repeal the law if there were a single example of a sulfide-ore copper mine that had operated and been closed for at least 10 years without polluting surrounding water. There is no such mine, all sulfide-ore copper mines pollute. Mines occasionally suggested as “clean” have, upon closer inspection of records, been shown demonstrably either to have polluted or not yet to have been operated and closed for at least 10 years (hence Tuesday's move to repeal Wisconsin’s prudent-yet-inconvenient Prove-it-First law.)
Wisconsin would be wise to reject this push from legislators and retain their sensible requirements on environmental protection.
Mines That Have Claimed to be Clean but Have Polluted:
H.R. 3905 is a dangerous bill proposed by Tom Emmer. What follows is a short summary of the bill to help you better understand what this legislation means for Minnesota. H.R. 3905 was introduced on October 5, 2017 by Rep. Tom Emmer (R-MN), and if passed it would eliminate environmental laws and overturn science-based decisions that currently protect the Boundary Waters and the Superior and Chippewa National Forests.
Effects of H.R. 3905:
H.R. 3905 would automatically grant Twin Metals Minnesota LLC (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Chilean copper mining company, Antofagasta) two federal mineral leases covering 5,000 acres of Superior National Forest lands. The leases would cover lands along and underneath rivers and lakes that flow into the Wilderness. Last December, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) rejected a request to renew the two leases after the U.S. Forest Service withheld its consent to renewal. Peer-reviewed science published early in 2016 concluded that under ordinary operating conditions, sulfide-ore copper mining in the watershed would pollute the Boundary Waters.
H.R. 3905 would undermine the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by eliminating NEPA’s requirement of environmental review before any decision is made to renew federal mineral leases in the watershed of a National Wilderness Area. Ordinarily, a federal proposal to renew a federal mineral lease is categorically excluded from NEPA’s environmental review requirement. There is an exception, however, that applies if the proposal to renew federal mineral leases might affect a federally-designated Wilderness Area. The U.S. Forest Service cited the risk to the Boundary Waters when it declined to consent to renewal of Twin Metals’ leases last year, and peer-reviewed published science makes clear that the Twin Metals leases, if renewed, pose an inherent risk of toxic pollution to the Boundary Waters. Therefore, any renewal of Twin Metals now-expired leases would have to undergo a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) as required under NEPA. The passage of H.R. 3905 would grant the Twin Metals mining leases without the required EIS under NEPA and without an opportunity for public input. Instead, H.R. 3905 directs there be a 30-day environmental assessment (EA) before automatically granting lease renewals. An EA is not an EIS; 30 days is not enough time to do an environmental review; and NEPA requires environmental review to inform a later decision, meaning a foregone conclusion to grant leases regardless of the environmental review is totally contrary to NEPA.
H.R. 3905 would void the U.S. Forest Service’s Record of Decision (ROD), which explains the facts, science, and public input on which the Forest Service based its decision not to give consent to renewal of Twin Metals’ mineral leases. In the ROD, the Forest Service explained that after reviewing the facts, science, and public input including meetings with elected officials around the state, it would not consent to renewal of the leases due to the inherent risk that sulfide-ore copper mining would cause serious pollution to the Boundary Waters -- pollution that could not be prevented or mitigated. The Forest Service further explained that it is obligated by the 1978 BWCA Wilderness Act to manage the Superior National Forest protect the waters of the Boundary Waters, and that that requires protecting waters that flow into the Wilderness.
H.R. 3905 would make all mineral leases issued in the Superior and Chippewa National Forests in Minnesota perpetually renewable. The bill mandates an initial 20-year lease term with automatic 10-year renewals in perpetuity. This would eliminate the consent rights of the Forest Service for lease renewals, the discretionary authority of the BLM, and NEPA’s requirement for open scientific analysis and public input.
The bill would override the 1946 and 1950 laws that make clear that no federal minerals can be leased in the Superior and Chippewa National Forests without the consent of the U.S. Department of Agriculture - Forest Service. The 1950 law requiring consent applies to public domain lands (those that have been in U.S. ownership since 1854), and the 1946 mineral law applies to acquired lands. Public domain lands constitute 90% of relevant Superior National Forest lands. Acquired lands, which were purchased for watershed and timber supply protection, make up the remainder. Both laws make clear that federal mineral leases can only be granted if the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture consents to the leasing. The 1946 Act directs that mineral leasing on acquired lands can only occur if the Secretary of Agriculture advises the Secretary of the Interior, “that such development will not interfere with the primary purposes for which the land was acquired and only in accordance with such conditions as may be specified by the Secretary of Agriculture in order to protect such purposes.” H.R. 3905 overrides the 1946 law because it is clear that sulfide-ore copper mining would interfere with watershed protection.
The bill would amend the 1906 Antiquities Act by mandating Congressional approval for any national monument designations in the Superior and Chippewa National Forests. The Antiquities Act of 1906 gives the President of the United States the power to establish National Monuments, a power that has been used by Democratic and Republican presidents alike over the past 110 years. H.R. 3905 strips the President’s authority so that it no longer applies to Minnesota. This is a very dangerous precedent, that, if passed, would place Minnesota beneath all other states, would weaken the Presidency, and could lead to the state-by-state gutting of the Antiquities Act.
The bill would amend the 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) by mandating Congressional approval for mineral withdrawals in the Superior and Chippewa National Forests. The Forest Service, in consultation with the BLM, is in the process of conducting a two-year study on a possible federal mineral “withdrawal.” The withdrawal would put 234,328 acres of federal land located on the Superior National Forest and within the Boundary Waters watershed, off-limits to new mineral leasing and exploration permits for up to 20 years. Current law, in FLPMA, empowers the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Interior to order a withdrawal of federal land for up to 20 years. H.R. 3905 would strip the Secretary of his power to order a federal withdrawal in Minnesota. Instead, any proposed withdrawal by the Secretary of Interior on federal lands in Minnesota would also require Congressional approval.
H.R. 3905 would bar the Forest Service from complying with the 1978 Boundary Waters Wilderness Act. Congress directed the Forest Service to maintain the high water quality of the Boundary Waters and a Mining Protection Area within the Superior National Forest. The Forest Service concluded that consenting to mineral lease requests by Twin Metals would be “contrary to Congress’ determination that it is necessary to ‘protect the special qualities of the [BWCAW] as a natural forest-lakeland wilderness ecosystem of major esthetic, scientific, recreational and educational value to the Nation.”
This bill puts the fate of the Boundary Waters in the hands of a Chilean mining conglomerate, Antofagasta, which owns Twin Metals Minnesota LLC. Antofagasta has a devastating record of environmental pollution at its South American copper mines,including a $23 million fine for water pollution at its flagship copper mine in Chile’s Atacama desert (one of the driest locations on Earth). Antofagasta also has a history of labor strife, and of taking more water than permitted. Andronico Luksic - the head of Chile’s wealthiest family and owner of the Luksic Group, which controls Antofagasta - has a documented history of doing big-money favors for Presidential family members in Chile and the U.S. Neither Antofagasta nor its subsidiaries has ever operated a copper mine in a water-rich place such as the Superior National Forest. The mines that Antofagasta/Twin Metals wants to build would be in the headwaters of the Boundary Waters, the only significant lakeland Wilderness Area and the most visited Wilderness in America.
My husband Dave and I skijored to the deepest spot on Wood Lake. Sled dogs Tina and Acorn pulled Dave. I followed with Tank enthusiastically trotting along. The air temperature was 10 degrees below zero—it was cold and the wind out of the northwest made it even colder. We paused near an island to detach ourselves from the dogs and walked the rest of the way to the deep spot. GPS in hand, Dave confirmed our position and kicked snow off the surface of the ice with his ski boot. He assembled our hand-powered ice drill and I pulled out the Hach Meter and clipboard. This was our 61st lake for measurements. The data we collected included dissolved oxygen and water temperatures for every meter—from the surface to the bottom or the end of the 15-meter probe, whichever came first. We also measured conductivity at the surface and when lakes were not ice-covered, turbidity with a secchi disk.
As Dave completed the final cranks of the hand-powered ice drill and pulled it from the hole, I pulled the batteries for the Hach Meter from my warm pocket. If I had left them in the Hach Meter even for our 20-minute ski, they wouldn’t have functioned in the cold. I breathed a sigh of relief as the Hach Meter powered on and I lowered the probe into the hole. Dave did jumping jacks as I wrote down measurements—happy to have mastered the art of wielding the pencil with my mitten on. The dogs watched with curiosity from their spot, nestled in the spruces. Despite the fact that the lake was only 5 meters deep, this was our most challenging spot to measure. I longed for the ice-free season when I simply lowered the probe over the gunwale of the canoe.
Why were we bothering to collect this data? In addition to keeping the beloved Boundary Waters on peoples' minds for an entire year, we also collected water quality data for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), adding measurements from 100 bodies of water to its database. We also collected water samples for Adventure Scientists’ Global Microplastics Initiative.
It will be a while until the data is publicly available on the MPCA and Adventure Scientists websites, but I can share with you a few things we learned during the process. It was expected that most Boundary Waters lakes would have dissolved oxygen greater than 5 mg/L (milligrams per liter) at the surface; we frequently saw dissolved oxygen higher than 7 mg/L—and it was not uncommon for us to find 10 mg/L or higher. In deep lakes, it is normal for dissolved oxygen to drop to near 0 mg/L mid-summer, about 10-20 feet down at the thermocline. Lake trout are cold-water fish and can be found in many of the deep, clear lakes in the Boundary Waters. These fish need dissolved oxygen concentrations greater than about 7 mg/L from the surface all the way to near the bottom to survive and we were happy to confirm that was the case in many of the deep, clear lakes that we measured.
I’ll give Basswood Lake a little more scrutiny, since it has a thriving fishery and is known for excellent fishing opportunities for lake trout, walleye and smallmouth bass—and it happens to be downstream from the proposed Twin Metals mine site. We took our measurements at the deepest part of Basswood, which is 111 feet deep and maxed out our probe. The dissolved oxygen at the surface was 10.29 mg/L, and halfway down (14 meters) it was still a healthy 9.3 mg/L. No wonder Basswood is a world-class fishing destination!
What about the samples for the Global Microplastics Initiative? They are being analyzed now and soon we will find out how many pieces of microplastics were found in each liter of water that we gathered. Microplastics are plastic particles smaller than 5 millimeters in size. They pose a significant environmental and human health risk when they enter our waterways. The Adventure Scientists have found microplastics in the vast majority of samples they have compiled over the last few years. It will be exciting to see the results from the samples we gathered.
Just in the past year, more and more reports are coming out about lakes being un-swimmable or unfishable due to pollution in the southern part of Minnesota. The walleye fishery in Lake Mille Lacs is in decline. Yet we happily drank out of, swam in and handily fished in the wilderness lakes of the Boundary Waters during our year out there. We are fortunate that wilderness advocates have kept the Boundary Waters forests untrammeled and the water unpolluted up until now, but it will take foresight and diligence to keep them that way.
“This is the most beautiful lake country on the continent. We can afford to cherish and protect it. Some places should be preserved from development or exploitation for they satisfy a human need for solace, belonging and perspective. In the end we turn to nature in a frenzied chaotic world, there to find silence—oneness—wholeness—spiritual release.”– Sigurd Olson
Take action today to protect the clean water of the Boundary Waters for future generations.
Dave and Amy Freeman, 2014 National Geographic Adventurers of the Year, are dedicated to protecting the Boundary Waters from sulfide-ore copper mining proposed on its wilderness edge. In 2014, they paddled and sailed 101 days and 2,000 miles from Ely, MN, to Washington, DC, on the Paddle to DC. From September 23, 2015 to September 23, 2016, the Freemans spent A Year in the Wilderness, camping at approximately 120 different sites, exploring 500 lakes, rivers and streams, and traveling more than 2,000 miles by canoe, foot, ski, snowshoe and dog team. They documented their year and will continue to share their stories on social media (@FreemanExplore, #WildernessYear) and in blog posts. A documentary about their journey, Bear Witness, premiered fall 2016. A book about their year will be published by Milkweed Editions in fall 2017.
This is Part II of our blog about the recent Duluth comment period hearing and our concerns about Twin Metals' parent company, Antofagasta. Make sure to read Part I of this blog, Strong Voices at Hearing and Rally in Duluth.
America’s most-visited Wilderness area is threatened by sulfide-ore copper mining proposed on nearby lands in the Wilderness watershed.
The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness contains 1.1 million acres of pristine water and unspoiled woodlands, including more than 1,175 lakes and more than a thousand miles of rivers and streams. The Superior National Forest, which includes the Boundary Waters, contains 20 percent of all the fresh water in the entire National Forest System. This great natural landscape is the backbone of a thriving gateway business community that exists because every year hundreds of thousands of people from around the world visit to enjoy this spectacular region of woods and waters.
The copper mining industry has a long history of acid mine drainage and heavy metals leaching with catastrophic environmental impacts, especially to water. And even state-of-the-art mines are at risk for major infrastructure disaster. For example, in August 2014, a tailings dam breach at the Mount Polley copper and gold mine in British Columbia released 4.5 million cubic meters of toxic slurry into a lake and river system that was a priceless salmon spawning area [Photo by Jonathan Hayward, The Canadian Press]. Two days later, a mine in Mexico spilled 40,000 cubic meters of copper sulfate acid into two rivers, wiping out the water supply for a vast rural area that depended on the river water for domestic use and agriculture. Fish and wildlife were devastated.
Now Twin Metals Minnesota, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Antofagasta PLC of Chile, is suing the United States demanding renewal of two sulfide-ore copper mining leases on the edge of our unique and fragile Boundary Waters Wilderness. Antofagasta, which owns several copper mines in Chile, has an environmental and social track record that should concern anyone who cares about the Boundary Waters and the communities around it.
Antofagasta should never be entrusted with the health and safety of the Boundary Waters and its watershed. In Chile, Antofagasta:
Here in the U.S., Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner’s new landlord just happens to be Andrónico Luksic. The Wall Street Journal reported that a business owned by Luksic bought a Washington, DC mansion for $5.5 million on December 22, 2016, and that twelve days after the purchase, Luksic’s company rented the mansion to Ms. Trump and Mr. Kushner.
While Andrónico Luksic has tweeted that Ms. Trump and Mr. Kushner are paying market rate rent - and perhaps they are - the real cause for concern is that Luksic of Antofagasta reportedly spent $5.5 million to make a mansion available to members of the First Family and top advisors to President Donald Trump at a time when Antofagasta is suing the United States to try to force renewal of mineral leases near the Boundary Waters.
We hope these reported efforts to open the watershed of the Boundary Waters to sulfide-ore copper mining are stopped; and that the Forest Service and the BLM maintain a steady course and complete the environmental review already underway; and that two years from now Interior Secretary Zinke sees the merit in, and orders, the 20-year withdrawal of federal lands inside the watershed of the Boundary Waters, from mining, as has been proposed by the U.S. Forest Service."
Matt Norton is the Campaign's policy director. He previously worked as campaign director with Minnesota Environmental Partnership, and as forestry and wildlife advocate and staff attorney for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy.
This is Part I of our blog about the recent Duluth comment period hearing and our concerns about Twin Metals' parent company, Antofagasta. Make sure to read Part II of this blog, Foreign Mining Company Threatens Boundary Waters.
Last week, the Campaign and partners gathered in Duluth as part of an official public hearing at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center, to speak up for the protection of the Boundary Waters from sulfide-ore copper mining. Just before the hearing, which was part of the scoping process for the two-year environmental review now underway, supporters of saving the Boundary Waters held a rally, complete with We Love the BWCA signs, and rousing speakers who addressed the risks of sulfide-ore copper mining near the Boundary Waters.
During the meeting, the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management heard comments from business owners, Arrowhead residents, citizens from across the state who enjoy wilderness recreation and clean water, and sportsmen and women. They also heard from supporters of sulfide-ore copper mining.
Speakers supporting protection of the Wilderness shared the critical points they believe should be considered during the two-year environmental review, including the economic impact a sulfide-ore copper mine would have on tourism and outdoor recreation economy, the risky history of this type of mining, the damage pollution from sulfide-ore copper mining would do to the ecosystem and human health, and much more.
People spoke 31 to 22 in favor of protecting the Wilderness and continuing the current environmental review on the sensitivity of the Boundary Waters Wilderness watershed, and the risks of sulfide-ore copper mining. We are proud of our supporters who shared comments during the rally and have submitted written comments, as well. If you missed the Duluth public hearing, or you attended but didn’t get a chance to speak, please know that this important public comment meeting will be followed by others. You also should be aware that there has been a 120-day extension of the comment period, which now concludes August 17.
During the remainder of this comment period, it is critical for all supporters of protecting the Boundary Waters to submit comments and raise their voices. We ask that you ask your friends and family members to submit comments as well. We’ll share any information on subsequent comment meetings when they are announced. At the conclusion of the comment period, the U.S. Forest Service will begin drafting the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS). Later, likely in early 2019, a Final EIS will be released, and then, perhaps some months later, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke will make a decision about whether to protect this watershed for a 20-year period.
This two-year environmental review process runs on public input, and your input absolutely will be required again, not only at the next public hearing (location and date are still to be determined) and in the remainder of this comment period, but again once the U.S. Forest Service has released the DEIS, and finally when the FEIS is published. Your public lands, and the future of the Boundary Waters, are certainly worth it.
As you think about what you want to convey to our federal agencies, consider these excerpts from a sampling of speakers at the Duluth hearing last Thursday, March 16:
"The riskiest place to put a sulfide-ore copper mine is a water-rich environment like the Boundary Waters,” said Jason Zabokrtsky of Ely Outfitting Co. and Boundary Waters Guide Service (pictured).
“The natural landscape is what drives our economy. It’s what makes us different,” said Dave Seaton, owner of Hungry Jack Outfitters on the Gunflint Trail. “Clean water is more valuable than copper.”
"We are looking at jobs for a finite period and pollution that can last over 500 years," said Will Jenkins of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.
The process for this environmental review began late last year, when the Departments of Agriculture and Interior announced an intention to initiate a “withdrawal” of public lands from the federal minerals leasing program, in order to protect the natural assets of the Superior National Forest and the Boundary Waters. That announcement of intent was followed in January of this year by formal publication of intent in the Federal Register to do a two-year environmental review on the effects of the proposed withdrawal.
The withdrawal process is one that is provided for in law - specifically in section 204 of the Federal Land Policy Management Act (FLPMA), and in federal regulations promulgated by the Department of the Interior pursuant to FLPMA. The withdrawal process has been used in the past many times, notably to protect the Grand Canyon from increased uranium mining, and to protect Yellowstone National Park from the threat of sulfide-gold mining.
Much of the opposition to the current process, at least as I observed in the Duluth hearing last Thursday, seems to be coming from supporters of the proposal by Twin Metals to mine sulfide-copper ore next to the Boundary Waters. That project can no longer move forward because the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management declined to renew Twin Metals’ expired mineral leases, leases which are now cancelled. Whether because they invested financially in the Twin Metals project, or because they hoped that the project would benefit them in other ways, the supporters tend to see the answer to local or personal needs in the Twin Metals project. Are they seeing the full picture? After all, Twin Metals parent company, Antofagasta has a troubling track record.
READ MORE: Learn about Twin Metals' owner Antofagasta and our concerns regarding their environmental and social track record in Part II of this blog: Science Desk: Foreign Mining Company Threatens Boundary Waters.
Matt Norton is the Campaign's policy director. He previously worked as campaign director with Minnesota Environmental Partnership, and as forestry and wildlife advocate and staff attorney for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy.
Several amazing announcements at the end of last year and the beginning of this year mean big news for the Boundary Waters – specifically, Twin Metals’ request to renew its mineral leases was denied, and a watershed-wide environmental review was initiated. We're proud of our efforts and the great strides we’ve taken to protect the Boundary Waters Wilderness, and we know we couldn't have done it without you or our Campaign partners. You need to know, however, that even though one mining company lost its leases, the fight to protect the Boundary Waters is not over.
More work is ahead for us and for you. There will be critical moments when we will need you to comment on behalf of the Boundary Waters. It is very important that you take action at each opportunity. Right now is one of those times -- comment here!
First, let's back up and break down what happened in December 2016 and the beginning of this year.
What Just Happened?
What Does It Mean?
In a nutshell, it means that the Campaign has met our short-term goal and is on track to, but has not yet, achieved our medium-term and long-term goals for protecting the Boundary Waters. Let’s review the Campaign’s short, medium, and long-term goals for protection for the Boundary Waters and its watershed from sulfide-ore copper mining.
To get the best environmental review possible, your comments on this environmental review are needed now! Your engagement in the environmental review process, and your continued support for the Campaign, are critical. The environmental review process has started with a 90-day public comment period. As someone who loves the Boundary Waters, your comment should be sent in as soon as possible, and definitely before April 19. You should also consider attending and speaking up at an agency-hosted public meeting.
So yes, we’ve seen some great forward steps taken in the last several weeks, but we’re not there yet. Luckily, we have a plan for how to get from here to our long-term goal: permanent protection for the Boundary Waters and its watershed ... And luckily, we have you. Our citizen members, volunteers, and partner organizations are essential. We have only gotten to this stage, and we will only achieve the greater victory of permanent protection, with your continued involvement and support. So please sign and share the petition to keep this momentum moving forward. Thank you!
Matt Norton is the Campaign's policy director. He previously worked as campaign director with Minnesota Environmental Partnership, and as forestry and wildlife advocate and staff attorney for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy.
The Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters has reached a critical turning point. The Departments of Agriculture (via the U.S. Forest Service (USFS)) and Interior (via its Bureau of Land Management (BLM)) are asking for public input as they consider whether or not to consent to the renewal of two expired mining leases. Unless both agencies give their consent, the expired leases are void. Without leases, the extractive hopes of Chilean copper mining giant, Antofagasta, and its Minnesota subsidiary, Twin Metals, for a sulfide-ore copper mine located next to (and in the watershed of) the BWCA, will come crashing down.
This is where you come in. As a lover of the Boundary Waters, Quetico Provincial Park, and Voyageurs National Park you should now, please, urge the USFS and BLM to withhold their consent and also to withdraw all the federal mineral rights within the watershed of the BWCA from the federal minerals leasing program.
Here is the full story:
On June 1, 1966, the BLM granted two identical leases to International Nickel Company (INCO), leases which are located within miles of what is now the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Each lease had an original term of 20 years, with the possibility of three renewals for ten years each. Combined, the two leases cover roughly 5,000 acres of the Superior National Forest and, more importantly, the federal minerals underneath. The leased acres are located immediately to the east of the Kawishiwi River and Birch lake, and to the west of and beneath Birch lake. Both lake and river flow directly into and through the heart of the BWCAW reaching the Quetico Provincial Park and Voyageurs National Park. The leases were renewed twice, first on July 1, 1989, and again on January 1, 2004. At no time did INCO or Twin Metals ever begin to produce (i.e., to actually mine) during the primary (20-year) term of the leases, or during either of the two ten-year renewals.
That the BLM ever issued the original leases seems amazing today, but consider for a moment that the leases are quite old, as far as leases go. The leases have never undergone environmental review, as they were issued on June 1, 1966, well before the passage of modern American environmental laws. Specifically, the leases predate the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA - the USA’s environmental review law, signed by Pres. Richard Nixon January 1, 1970); the Federal Clean Air Act (1970); the Federal Clean Water Act (1972); and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act (1978). The leases also predate:
In October, 2012, Twin Metals applied for a third 10-year renewal, claiming an automatic right to the third renewal. The BLM, in the course of considering Twin Metals’ application, asked the Office of the Solicitor (the Interior Department’s top lawyer) whether a third lease renewal was required as Twin Metals claimed, or instead up to the discretion of the federal agencies. On March 8th, 2016, the Solicitor issued its determination in a substantial document called an M-opinion, which includes a summation of the facts and the legal analysis that supports and explains the government’s decision.
The Solicitor’s M-opinion concludes that mining company Twin Metals Minnesota has no legal right to a third renewal of the expired mineral leases. Rather, whether to renew the expired leases is a decision within the discretion of Secretary of the Interior, and the USFS as surface land manager.
The M-opinion explains, painstakingly, that under the terms of the original leases the lessee (now Twin Metals) is entitled to three successive 10-year renewals of the leases unless at the end of the original 20-year lease the lessee has not begun production (i.e., mining). The leases allow the Secretary of Interior to grant an extension of time for the commencement of production, but the lessee is not entitled to any subsequent lease renewals unless production begins during the extended time.
Production has never begun – not during the 20-year primary term, nor during the first lease renewal term. In addition, the Secretary of Interior did not grant an extension of time for beyond the primary lease term for commencement of production. As a result, Twin Metals has no legal right to an automatic third renewal of the expired leases.
That leaves the decision of whether to renew the expired leases in the hands of the BLM and USFS. The BLM has asked the USFS whether it will consent or not to consent to renewal of the leases. The USFS has a right to withhold its consent and if the agency does, then the leases are as good as terminated.
Before making a determination on the question, the USFS set out a 30-day public input period, and first one then another public listening session. The first of which was held in Duluth on July 13 (pictured above, watch the livestream here) and the second of which is scheduled for this coming Tuesday, July 19, in Ely.
Recently, we shared a Science Desk blog about landscape ecology, which considers broad patterns of ecological relationships and processes that can never be corralled by boundaries on a map. Its principles support the eagle-eyed perspective we need to protect the Boundary Waters. Water flowing into the Boundary Waters has a huge influence on wilderness water quality and everything that depends on it, so we think in terms of entire watersheds when we consider proposals to undertake sulfide-ore copper mining here.
Thanks to science reports we've commissioned and reports in the media, we know a lot about the flow of ground and surface waters within the Rainy River watershed. We can clearly see how contaminants could be transported from mining locations into the wilderness and beyond by Spruce and Stoney Creeks and associated flowages, the Kawishiwi and Rainy Rivers, and points west and north.
What happens within our airsheds also demands the broad perspectives of landscape ecologists and wilderness advocates. Vast rivers of birds flow across oceans and continents, following flyways that connect wintering grounds with distant breeding habitat – which for many is the Boundary Waters and surrounding wildlands. The air currents that carry these great migrations would be polluted by sulfide-ore copper mining as surely as the rivers beneath.
Sometimes we get an inkling of that airy river when we hear the soft twittering of birds flying in starlight all through the night. Radar that can track migrating birds and reveal the magnitude of the great migrations has helped create the concept of flyways as rivers. That metaphor was embedded in my mind by an encounter with warblers on a cool and misty day in mid May several years ago.
I was planting trees on a campsite on Alton Lake. Across the lake, the treetops, just beginning to leaf out, were vibrant green pillows scattered across the pale landscape. A few yellow-rumped warblers preyed on a hatch of soft little flies.
By late morning the just-hatched insects covered every rock, tree, and shrub near the lake, and suddenly I realized there were warblers everywhere. Along the shore from the south came dozens, then hundreds, all on the prowl, plucking flies from every surface. There were gorgeous redstarts, strikingly handsome black-throated greens, bay-breasteds resplendent with velvety brown heads and rich chestnut throats. Rusty-cheeked Cape Mays searched a young fir beside me while palms worked the ground practically at my feet. By noon I’d seen more than half of the 24 species of wood warbler that nest in the BWCAW, and they were there by the thousands.
They piled up against the shore where a bay blocked their flow, until the point was alive with beautiful warblers from forest floor to canopy. Then they surged out across the bay and flew northward, pushed on by warblers pouring in from the south.
I later found that friends at Tettagouche State Park and in Grand Marais, and my husband on Knife Lake were witness that day to the same spectacle, so the crest of this wave of warblers must have been at least 40 miles wide.
Bud Heinselman, in his classic book The Boundary Waters Ecosystem, reports astonishing numbers of warblers in the Boundary Waters and surrounding wildlands. His estimates, based on studies done in the 1970s–80s, range from 1,300–2,200 pairs per square mile - which adds up to some 5 million adults and young wilderness-hatched warblers at the start of the fall migration.
Every one of these warblers preys on insects. One pair can pick off all the caterpillars from a million leaves in the 10 days it takes them to fledge their young. Even though each warbler is tiny (most weigh well under an ounce) together they provide invaluable free (and pesticide-free) insect control services throughout their nesting habitat and on down the flyway. We know about many of the hugely beneficial ways warblers interact with their environment. For example, Tennessee, Cape May, bay-breasted, and blackburnian warblers play a big role in regulating frequency and severity of spruce budworm epidemics. Many others, no doubt, are yet to be discovered.
Chel Anderson and Heidi Fischer discuss the bird-forest relationship that is so crucial to forest health in their book North Shore: A Natural History of Minnesota’s Superior Coast. Summed up, our forests must have birds, including the all-important warblers, to maintain health and vigor; and for warblers, forests with a diversity of communities of different species and of various ages, including especially mature coniferous forests in unbroken tracts, are absolutely essential. When this relationship fails, results are dire.
These wonderful warblers are in danger from Twin Metals and the other proposed mines. An obvious peril would be the displacement of thousands of birds by the mining operations’ footprints. Nesting habitat lost to new roads, buildings, parking lots, and waste disposal sites could not be replaced, and each year would mean the loss of what should have been that generation’s offspring.
The operations’ footprints would be irregularly shaped, meaning that new forest fragmentation would be maximized. A study of global changes in forest cover from 2000 to 2012 reveals that we’re losing forest interior three times as fast as loss of overall forest. While there was a net loss of forest cover about 2 ½ times the size of Texas during that period, it’s the fragmentation that’s the bigger worry. The authors conclude, “Forest area loss alone from 2000 to 2012 underestimates ecological risks from forest fragmentation. In addition to the direct loss of forest, there was a widespread shift of the remaining global forest to a more fragmented condition.” This is bad because some organisms, including some songbirds, must have large stretches of unbroken forest.
Also, interior (unfragmented) forest can better withstand impacts from things like invasive species and various kinds of pollution. At the edges of forests, and in small fragments of forest – exactly what the mining operation has produced, with its hundreds of test drill sites with access roads widely scattered throughout the forest, and which would continue to be produced should operations proceed - things like variation in soil moisture, nighttime lights and noise, and traffic have a much bigger impact.
Along the edges of the mining operations, 24/7 noise and light pollution would be more than a nuisance to wildlife of many kinds. For example, even seemingly innocuous lights like porch lights and street lamps have been shown to have negative impacts on migrating and nesting songbirds. The dead zone as far as successful nesting for warblers might extend far beyond the actual footprint of mining operations.
The air the birds travel and breath would be contaminated with dust which could carry, to name some of the toxic ingredients, mercury, sulfur, copper, nickel, cobalt, arsenic, lead, and cadmium, as well as asbestos-like fibers and non-toxic, but still unhealthy, particulates. This scary mix wouldn’t just hover above the mine sites. It would become part of the currents of air that stream up toward Ely some days and out across the wilderness and on to the North Shore on others, to be breathed into lungs, scattered across leaves, lakes, soil, caterpillars, canoeists, warbler nests, and your garden and mine.
The University of Minnesota’s Center for Forest Ecology Director Lee Frelich discusses potential impacts likely to affect the Boundary Waters in his report Forest and Terrestrial Impacts of Mining. According to Dr. Frelich, windblown metallic dust can remain a problem for several decades after mining ceases on copper-nickel mine tailings. Once in the soil, the heavy metals can be taken up by plants and can be further distributed by forest fires. It can contribute to acidification that may lead to mineral deficiencies and slow plant growth. Essential mycorrhizal relationships may be disrupted. Cumulatively, the overall resiliency of the forest may be diminished.
Two kinds of rivers, aerial and aquatic, intersected this morning in the form of a yellow- rumped warbler bugging above the Temperance River, not far from where it flows out of the Boundary Waters. He flew in on last night’s front, and now he’s hunting from the top of a young cedar. From his perspective and ours each insect is backlit by golden sunlight. He eyes his prey, darts out and does some fancy maneuvering, makes the catch and flits back to his perch. He throws back his head and sings.
This bird has traveled to habitat that’s uniquely perfect for his springtime needs. No other place in his entire range has habitat this intact, air and water this free of pollution, insects this abundant. I really wish I could tell him that his kind will always be able to come here and find clean air to fly through and clean water to hunt over.
We’re still in the early days of spring with not much happening in the woods, color-wise, so the bright yellow splashes on his rump and sides are eye-catching in a way you could say are out of proportion to their tiny size.
You might say, too, that our delight in watching one little bird is a little over the top, but I don’t think so – it feels just right, in this beautiful place, to pause and admire a perfect little predator just returned to the northwoods after an epic journey.
Ellen Hawkins lives near the edge of the Boundary Waters, off the Sawbill Trail. Retired from the Forest Service, she finds that surprise encounters with wildlife of all kinds are still among her most delightful experiences, just as they were during her years as a Wilderness ranger.
Anderson, Chel; Fischer, Adelheid. 2015. North Shore: A Natural History of Minnesota’s Superior Coast. The University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Frelich, Lee. 2014. Forest and terrestrial ecosystem impacts of mining.
Heinselman, Miron. 1996. The Boundary Waters Wilderness Ecosystem. The University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Riitters, Kurt; Wickham, James; Costanza, Jennifer K.; Vogt, Peter. 2015. A global evaluation of forest interior area dynamics using tree cover data from 2000 to 2012.