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Science Desk: Isn’t It Time We Learned Our Lesson?

Thursday, August 13, 2015
Posted by
Rachel Garwin

As Ron Meador notes in MinnPost this week, it is an unrelated yet bizarre coincidence that the Animas River in Durango, Colorado, turned an eerie shade of mustard-yellow a few days after the one-year anniversary of Mount Polley copper mine’s tailings dam failure. Instead of the week being dominated by Mount Polley retrospectives, headlines are recounting a homegrown mining disaster a hundred years in the making. Though these mines are not in Minnesota, they have great bearing on proposals to dig into sulfide-bearing ore to extract copper and nickel. They are shocking displays of what can--and often does--go wrong in the hardrock mining industry, and should serve as a warning for those considering the impacts of placing sulfide-ore copper mines in the watershed of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Voyageurs National Park. PHOTO: Jerry McBride/Durango Herald/AP


A year ago last week, the Mount Polley copper mine tailings dam burst unexpectedly and catastrophically. News reports called the breach “Canada’s worst mine disaster," and to this day, the long term environmental impact of the spill is unknown. As of April 2015, water flowing out of Hazeltine Creek into Quesnel Lake still had significantly elevated heavy metal concentrations and water in the Quesnel River, downstream of the lake, was still too murky for residents to drink. Heavy metals had built up in the sediment at the bottom of the lake, as well, giving rise to the concern that there will be additional pulses of metals as the lake water and sediments turn over and mix during natural seasonal variations, according to the Vancouver Sun. To make matters worse, the breach altered the very physical characteristics of Hazeltine Creek: it now resembles more of a carved rock canyon than a stream. Mount Polley shows us the potential for an unexpected catastrophic infrastructure failure at a modern mine operated by a company with an otherwise good reputation in a country with supposedly advanced mining regulations and environmental protection requirements. We have learned, however, that disasters happen even in those best-case circumstances. PHOTO: Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press


Before the Gold King Mine in Colorado released a torrent of acidic water into the Animas River, I had planned to follow up the Mount Polley anniversary notes with observations of other mines across North America that have made the news for unexpected releases of polluted materials into their surrounding environments. These fall into the category of contamination considered to be less individually severe but that occur more frequently than a catastrophic failure like the one at Mount Polley. For instance, British Columbia shut down the Yellow Giant underground gold mine on Banks Island in mid-July 2015 for releasing polluted materials into lakes, creeks and a wetland. Yellow Giant had only been operating for three months before it released an “unauthorized” discharge in March, and again released effluent and tailings in June and July. The same article references additional small spills occurring at the Myra Falls and Copper Mountain mines in British Columbia in the last year as well. These run-of-the-mine (as it were) spills fit into a larger context of the industry’s frequent leaks and spills due to infrastructure failure, human error or unexpected conditions. To some extent, these releases are simply expected to occur -- thus the distinction between an “authorized” and an “unauthorized” discharge.


What happens when polluted material makes it into the creeks, lakes, streams, wetlands and groundwater that surround a mine? It becomes incredibly difficult to monitor and clean up. Ask residents of Butte, Montana, who are locked in a debate with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over whether a plume of metal-contaminated leach water is creeping toward the Silver Bow Creek, part of which was recently restored. Experts in mine waste remediation cannot agree what to do with the Parrot mine’s pile of tailings that has sat in the center of town since at least 1906. Over 100 years later, residents still fear the uncontrolled underground spread of contaminants, and must live with the toxic legacy of one the nation’s largest mining booms.


A similar theme can be found in the in-depht articles discussing the Gold King mine spill. As Jonathan Thompson reported in High Country News, water pollution has been ongoing since miners first started digging up minerals in the Animas River watershed in the 1870s. A complicated series of corporate responsibility handoffs and ultimately legal and technical difficulties allowed water to build up in three mines, including the Gold King. Contaminated water seeped out of them, untreated, into tributaries of the Animas River. The EPA, in its efforts to address the thorny, complex problem of ongoing runoff, proved just how difficult it is to clean up mine waste: it accidentally triggered an even larger spill of an estimated 3 million gallons of acidic mine seepage water and sludge that turned the Animas River orange. The complexity of the issue is truly stunning, and it is instructive how promises of mitigation, remediation and responsibility for water treatment in perpetuity ring false.


Mt. Polley. Yellow Giant. Myra Falls. Copper Mountain. Parrot. Gold King. Though these mines are far away from the Boundary Waters, we must learn from their failures. If we don’t, then the pristine water of the Boundary Waters and Voyageurs National Park will be at risk for decades --and centuries--of contamination. As the diverse array of mine failures in the past year has shown us, the complexity of mining pollution makes prevention and clean-up incredibly difficult. The only fail-safe way to protect the Boundary Waters and Voyageurs from sulfide-ore copper mining pollution is to prevent it from occurring in their watershed in the first place.


Rachel Garwin is the Campaign's policy director. She holds an M.S. in Natural Resources from the University of Vermont. Every month, Science Desk will include our latest scientific support and share a deeper understanding of the potential environmental impact from sulfide-ore copper mining near the Boundary Waters.

A Superior Hiking Trail Thru-Hike: Part Two, Last-Minute Prep

Thursday, August 6, 2015
Posted by
Kathleen Ferraro

On August 9, 2015, Kathleen Ferraro will begin a thru-hike of the Superior Hiking Trail. Kathleen decided to hike in support of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters and use her hike as a chance to educate people about the risk posed to the Boundary Waters from sulfide-ore copper mining. This blog is the second in a series about her adventure. Read her first post here.


As the start date to thru-hike the Superior Hiking Trail (SHT) draws nearer, my hiking plans grow more concrete. The route is set: south to north, hiking 10 to 19 miles per day. My packing list is complete, my GORP recipe ready and my gear laid out. All there’s left to do is stuff my pack, put on my hiking boots and get on the trail.


In more detail, the route follows the Superior Hiking Trail Association’s guidebook suggestions, meaning I’ll experience all sections of the SHT. The trail largely sticks to the coast of Lake Superior going through various rivers, ridges, peaks, creeks and nearby trails. The end of the trail dumps hikers just seven miles from the Canadian border.


This hike is also an exciting opportunity to meet other adventure-lovers in northern Minnesota. The Superior Hiking Trail runs through myriad towns and state parks, complete with lodges and avid outdoor enthusiasts.


As I mentioned in my first post, my love of the wilderness up north extends to both the SHT and the Boundary Waters. Throughout the hike, I’ll be stopping at lodges in said towns and state parks to disperse Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters literature and collect petition signatures. I’ll be making these stops on the way to and from the SHT, as well as during resupplies every week, though I will be camping on trail.


Anyone I stumble across on trail will likewise be educated about the need to protect the wilderness and hopefully contribute their signature to the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters petition. All in all, the goal is to encounter as many individuals and places as possible to spread the word while exploring. The Campaign calls this type of activity “adventure advocacy.”


Only a few more days before getting this show on the road, and I could not be more excited!

Science Desk: What Does an Underground Mine Look Like?

Monday, July 27, 2015
Posted by
Rachel Garwin

By now, you’ve no doubt heard that Twin Metals proposes to build a massive underground mine on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and upstream from Voyageurs National Park. Minnesota Public Radio described the resulting operation as a “vast underground city.” Though used to downplay concerns about the impact of the mining activity, the underground design still leaves plenty of pathways for significant negative environmental impact. Putting aside the fact that Twin Metals’ own Pre-Feasibility Statement states that the Maturi Southwest deposit “will likely be mined to the surface at some point in the future” (see PFS [PDF], page 14-30), it is crucial to understand the multitude of ways an underground mine will still impact the surface.

Two months ago, we detailed the toxic leaks, seeps and spills that are likely to occur. These byproducts result from surface waste storage ponds; the tailings storage facility slated to hold 234 million tons of toxic tailings; the tailing pipelines throughout the area; and even from the underground caverns themselves.

Last month, we discussed the habitat loss and fragmentation from paste plants; a 1,000-acre concentrator plant facility; a 7,000-acre tailings storage facility; and increased traffic. What would that surface infrastructure look like, and what impact would it have on the environment? Underground mine infrastructure from other parts of the world, such as the world’s largest underground copper mine in El Teniente, Chile, (pictured left) can give us a sense.

Other infrastructure would include four paste plants built above the Maturi and Maturi Southwest deposits. These industrial plants would mix tailings, cement and fly ash before the mixture is then pumped underground. Thirteen ventilation facilities are currently planned to be built, to ensure miners deep underground have sufficient air to breathe, and these systems can be quite large. The axial-flow ventilation at the Kriel coal mine in South Africa (pictured right, photo courtesy of Dr. Steven Bluhm) and the Turf No. 3 Vent Shaft at Newmon’s Leeville underground mine in Nevada (pictured left, below) are some examples of ventilation facilities used with this type of mining.

Besides the destructive physical footprint and negative visual impact of these facilities, they would have a noticeable noise impact. Fans from the ventilation facilities, diesel engines from round-the-clock truck transport and even surface crushing of ore (for at least 13 years) would drown out the natural sounds of the Northwoods. In addition to disturbing human environment, the constant and continued noise pollution could have severe impacts to wildlife.

Studies have shown that noise alone can harm birds, as detailed in a recent New York Times article. When researchers built a phantom road out of speakers, birds affected by the noise had significantly less body weight when the road was “on” than when it was “off.” The researchers in that study and others hypothesize that when too much noise drowns out the early warning systems birds and other animals use to warn of predators, they spend too much time worried about being eaten and not enough time looking for food. Combined with a harsh northern Minnesota winter, the impacts of such constant noise could be disastrous.

These examples of surface infrastructure are not the only ones that would be involved in building and running a “vast underground city.” A truly massive industrial zone would have to be created on the surface to support the workers, trucks and machinery busy at work below. Fueling stations, high voltage transmission lines (with their own distinct hum), chemical storage tanks, water retention ponds and even sewage storage or treatment facilities would create their very own surface city on top of the one underground.

Rachel Garwin is the Campaign's policy director. She holds an M.S. in Natural Resources from the University of Vermont. Every month, Science Desk will include our latest scientific support and share a deeper understanding of the potential environmental impact from sulfide-ore copper mining near the Boundary Waters.

The Actions We Take

Friday, July 17, 2015
Posted by
Dave Freeman

In just over two months, Amy and I will launch our canoe near the proposed Twin Metals mine site and paddle up along the Kawishiwi River into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. We have paddled and dogsleded along the Kawishiwi River many times, but I have a feeling we will have a heightened sense of excitement and probably a little more apprehension when we paddle into the Wilderness this time. Our newest adventure begins on September 23 and will not last an hour, a day or a week. We will be entering the Wilderness for a full year.

We are undertaking this journey because we want to inspire people to take action and help protect the Boundary Waters from Twin Metals and other sulfide-ore copper mines. We love the Wilderness and want to continue to enjoy it. We want to share this canoe country with people during every season. It has been exciting working with a large group of volunteers, staff, organizations and businesses that are rallying around our Year in the Wilderness. This dedicated team, made up mostly of volunteers from the Ely area, is helping us organize resupplies, gather the food and equipment that we need and working to insure that A Year in the Wilderness will have as great an impact as possible. Ultimately our goal is to permanently protect the Boundary Waters from sulfide-ore copper mining. In order for that to happen we need tens of thousands more people to join us by take direct action to insure the Boundary Waters is protected.

The Year in the Wilderness was officially announced yesterday through a press release that has already led to more than a dozen news stories. We have a great team of people helping us check things off of a to-do list, which seems to grow longer by the day!

Amy and I are wilderness guides and educators and this is a way that we can use our skills to help ensure a place we love and rely on for our way of life and our livelihood will remain protected.  There are things that all of us can do, from calling our elected officials and encouraging them to protect the Boundary Waters from sulfide-ore copper mining to donating money and time to further the cause.

Last night Amy and I were part of a group of volunteers that met at Sustainable Ely to call people and urge them to contact elected officials. Many of the people we talked with were very concerned and left messages for Senator Franken and other elected officials, but my conversation with one man still stands out in my mind. I talked with him for more than 10 minutes and he asked me many questions and had lots of good ideas.

He asked me if I had ever met Senator Franken in person and I explained that my wife and I paddled from the Boundary Waters to Washington, DC, last fall and met with dozens of people, including both our senators. He suggested we contact the media and I explained that there was a story on the cover of the Duluth News Tribune about this issue today and the work that we are doing with the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters. I explained that the story was picked up by the AP and printed across the country. He couldn’t believe that anyone would or could build a mine up near the Boundary Waters, but he refused to contact his representative and share his opinion. 

Believing that something should or should not happen doesn’t matter; it is the actions we take, both large and small, that effect change. The work being done here in Ely, across Minnesota, and around the country to protect this place by an ever-growing group of individuals dedicated to the perseveration of the Boundary Waters is truly inspiring. The next year is a critical time and it is critical that we contact our elected officials, write letters to the editor, talk with our neighbors and take action.

Jake and Mitch at Sustainable Ely are organizing weekly phone banks each Thursday evening from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. with pizza and beer. While calling people you don’t know can be a little intimidating, I sort of got the hang of it by the end of the night. Amy and I had never done any phone banking before last night. We look forward to volunteering again. Plus, you don’t have to be in Ely to participate, you can call from home, all you need is a phone and a computer. Contact Sustainable Ely to learn more.

Help support A Year in the Wilderness by voting for the Freemans in the Canoe & Kayak magazine Dream Your Adventure contest (Voting closed July 15).

Dave Freeman and Amy Freeman were named National Geographic's 2014 Adventurers of the Year.

A New Adventure

Thursday, July 2, 2015
Posted by
Mitch Paquette

Two months ago, I loaded up my parents’ Subaru with all of my belongings, my kayak strapped firmly to the roof, and made the roughly four-and-a-half-hour trip north from St. Paul to Ely, Minnesota. It was not an unfamiliar drive, but rather one that brought back memories of countless journeys that I had made to Ely and the Boundary Waters with my family and friends throughout my young life. Despite the nostalgia, as we neared Ely, I could not deny that this adventure had a decidedly different feel to it, as well as a different purpose.

I made the decision to move to Ely in large part because of the surrounding wilderness, the endless miles of forest to be hiked and waters to be paddled. I also came here to answer a call from this very same wilderness which has given me so much, a call for defenders who will work to protect this uniquely special place now when it needs them most.

I am an intern here at Sustainable Ely, the home of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters. Along with our Northeast Regional Organizer Jake Flaherty and our fabulous team of passionate volunteers, I help keep the office staffed from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., 7 days a week.

Our mission is to spread awareness about the threat to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area from proposed sulfide-ore copper mining to the people who come to Ely to enjoy this precious wilderness. We work to educate and provide accurate information to visitors about this newest threat to the Boundary Waters, share what this wilderness means to the region and to the 250,000 people who visit this national treasure annually, and tell them how we can all contribute to the effort to protect it.

We also bring the Campaign to exciting events in and around the community, such as the Fourth of July Parade and Blueberry Arts Festival in Ely and the Boundary Waters Expo on the Gunflint Trail. Sustainable Ely also works with the many local businesses who recognize the value of the Boundary Waters and help us in our efforts to protect it by promoting our growing national movement.

If you find yourself in Ely, be sure to stop by. We have a large selection of of brochures and educational materials that will help you understand the issue and let you know why it is so important that we act now to protect this wilderness. Sustainable Ely also has a number of displays that explain where these sulfide-ore copper mines are proposed and the areas that they could impact. These resources are intended to help visitors take an informed stance with regards to proposed sulfide-ore copper mining in the Boundary Waters watershed, but also to provide our supporters with the tools that they need to educate their friends and family about this issue.

The staff at Sustainable Ely are knowledgeable and always excited to have a conversation about protecting the Boundary Waters, a place that we all love and that we want to make sure is here for future generations.

Please come visit us here on 206 E. Sheridan Street to find out more about the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, chat with me about paddling, talk to Jake about fishing hotspots, or find out about the best places to visit in town from the longtime residents of Ely who volunteer here daily. Before you leave, be sure to sign your name on one of our Wenonah canoes and our petition in support of the National Park and Wilderness Waters Protection Forever Act to permanently protect the Boundary Waters from the dangers of sulfide-ore copper mining.

Photo Credit: Becca Dilley

A Superior Hiking Trail Thru-Hike: Part One, Why I'm Going

Monday, June 29, 2015
Posted by
Kathleen Ferraro

On August 9, 2015, Kathleen Ferraro will begin a thru-hike of the Superior Hiking Trail. Kathleen decided to hike in support of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters and use her hike as a chance to educate people about the risk posed to the Boundary Waters from sulfide-ore copper mining. This blog is the first in a series about her adventure. [Katheen pictured on right in photo]


pic.jpg

My connection with the wilderness is both old and new. Having grown up in Minnesota, I’ve always considered myself a part of a body of people uniquely attached to the environment--it’s the land of 10,000 lakes, after all. Growing up with wilderness literally minutes away, hiking, swimming, sailing, skiing, camping and biking have always been favorite pastimes. There is also a certain environmental spirit that Minnesota and Minnesotans alike embody: an innate regard for the outdoors in both work and leisure, and physical and spiritual senses. Where going “up north” is synonymous with going outside, where deadly winters are just an opportunity to play pond hockey, Minnesota has a harmonious environmentalist spirit that I love, respect and hopefully embody.


 

Beyond that, my backpacking days began at Project Wildcat, a pre-orientation program before I started college at Northwestern University. Project Wildcat features a body of student counselors that take incoming freshmen on eight day backpacking trips on the Superior Hiking Trail (SHT) in northern Minnesota. I did it, I loved it and I became a counselor. Since then, I’ve been planning and leading trips every year with a great group of outdoor devotees.


Since becoming a counselor for Project Wildcat, I’ve done everything possible to continue to engage in wilderness around the world, including working with a guiding company in Iceland and trekking in South America. All the same, good ol’ northern Minnesota is still my favorite place.

 

Whether its the fact that its home or the many Project Wildcat-related memories I associate with the SHT, I would drop anything to head up north for a few days on trail (in fact, I did drop everything: I’m sitting on a boat in Lake Superior writing this right now). After these experiences, I’m a firm believer that being in the wilderness strips you down to the best, most authentic version of yourself, and if wilderness can do that to me then it's only fair that I do everything I can to maintain the best, most authentic environments on earth.


Naturally, with a few weeks off at the end of this summer, what better adventure to undertake than thru-hike the SHT? And how better to do it than in support of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters? I wanted to do my part to support their efforts to protect the area from the proposed sulfide-ore copper mines. And I was certainly inspired by the adventure advocacy efforts of the Bike Tour to Save the Boundary Waters and Dave and Amy Freeman’s Paddle to DC and upcoming Year in the Wilderness.


 

What the SHT is to hikers, the Boundary Waters is to canoers. I know that my experiences on the SHT have helped me grow as an outdoor enthusiast and as a person. I also know the power of the Boundary Waters and the impact that wilderness has had on me and many others.


My adventure begins August 9, 2015. Let’s hike!

 

Know the Issue: Lease renewal and environmental review

Wednesday, June 24, 2015
Posted by
Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters

Have you wanted to understand more about the mineral lease renewal process for the mining proposals we've discussed? Or wanted to understand the environmental review possibilities, such as an in-depth Environmental Impact Statement (EIS)? Read this article for a deeper understanding.


Lease renewal latest flashpoint in mine debate: Opponents of copper-nickel mining call for environmental impact statement

This piece, written by Marshall Helmsberger, originally ran in the May 15, 2015, issue of the Ely Timberjay and is reprinted here with permission.

 

An ongoing effort by Twin Metals to renew two federal mineral leases has become the latest pint of conflict over the prospect of copper-nickel and precious metals mining within the Superior National Forest.

The company is also seeking to convert three existing prospecting permits into what are known as preference rights permits, which could eventually give the company the right to mine.

In all, the permits cover several thousand acres running roughly parallel to the South Kawishiwi River, southeast of Ely.

Opponents of the proposed mine, who are fearful of the water pollution within a major Boundary Waters watershed, have asked the Bureau of Land Management, which overseas the mineral rights on federal lands, to conduct a full Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS, before renewing the permits. Jason Zabokrtsky, of Ely, an organizer with the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, said the EIS is an opportunity to take a “big picture” look at whether a mine is compatible with the vast water-based wilderness located downstream.

Any decision to complete an EIS could add two years or more to the renewal process and create uncertainty as Twin Metals seeks to advance its mining proposal. Company spokesman Bob McFarlin called a full EIS “unwarranted,” and said it’s never been done on a mineral lease renewal request before.

Lease History

The federal Bureau of Land Management first issued the two existing federal mineral leases, known as MNES 1352 and MNES 1353, to the International Nickel Company, or INCO, back in 1966. The preference rights leases, which are the only two such leases ever issued on the Superior National Forest, have changed hands over the years, and today are controlled by Twin Metals and its parent Antofagasta.

The original lease remained in effect for 20 years, and has twice been renewed for ten years each time. The two leases most recently expired Dec. 31, 2013, and in anticipation of the fact, Bever Bay Inc., a company headed by longtime prospector Ernie Lehman, began the reapplication process back in Ocotber 2012. That entity has since been acquired by Antofagasta.

While the BLM approved previous renewal requests through a limited review process, know as a categorical exclusion, the agency has decided to conduct a broader environmental assessment, or EA, this time around. BLM officials originally told Twin Metals that they expected to release a draft of the EA by the end of 2013. Now, nearly a year and a half later, there’s now sign of the EA and federal officials say there still not sure how to proceed with the renewal application process. “It’s not a straight-forward process,” said Kris Reichenbach, spokesperson for the Superior National Forest. While the BLM manages federal minerals, the affected surface lands are governed by the Forest Service and both agencies are coordinating in the ongoing review and must have concurrence on the application before it can proceed. “My understanding is that there are ongoing discussions between BLM and at higher levels within the department,” she said.

Reichenbach said part of the delay stems from the fact that the original lease was issued prior to the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, when requirements were much different from today. “Now the question is what is the appropriate way to issue a renewal based on current guidelines,” said Reichenbach. “We’re doing some trailblazing here.”

Groups see need for broader discussion

Opponents of copper-nickel mining on the edge of the Boundary Waters say the lease renewal may be the only opportunity for a public debate on whether a mine is an appropriate development for the area. They say once Twin Metals proposes a mine plan, any subsequent environmental review will be focused more narrowly on the environmental effects of the proposal, and it won’t provide the opportunity to highlight alternative native futures for the area. “Now is the time for the BLM to step back and asses whether this location is an appropriate place to do this,” said Zabokrtsky. “It’s the one time they can look at this in a broader context, considering the values of multiple uses of this land versus the single use of a mine. This project really fits the standards for requiring a thorough EIS review.

Zabokrtsky said as more information has come out in recent years, the risks of a mine are clearer than they were when the leases were originally issued. “There’s so much new science on the issue as far as the risks to human health and this very unique and fragile ecosystem,” he said. “Our campaign has worked really hard to pull the science together and to make people aware of it.”

The campaign is hoping that the BLM will ultimately decline to renew the leases, but even if they lose that fight they see benefits from highlighting the science they say supports extreme caution towards any mining proposals near the BWCAW. “Given the value of the wilderness and [the mine’s location] in the heart of a very important economic area for St. Louis and Lake counties, there’s a big cost in dislocating all of that investment and economic activity,” said Becky Rom, who heads up the campaign. “This is the opportunity to really look at that and make an informed decision, based on the science.”

By contrast, Twin Metals officials say there really isn’t much to talk about when it comes to the lease renewals. Twin Metals’ McFarlin said that the company has no objections to the completion of an EA, which as already been decided in either case. “The bigger issue is the request to do a full-blown EIS. That certainly would be unwarranted and unprecedented,” he said.

McFarlin said if mine opponents want to have a broader discussion about the prospect of mining in the area, an EA would provide that opportunity. “That opportunity will come when the EA is released.” That’s when a public comment period gets underway.

As for assessing environmental effects, McFarlin said the lease, by itself, has no effects. “These are contractual documents. They give the right to propose activities in relation to the leases, but it’s not until you proposed physical activities that you have something to study.”

McFarlin said the BLM granted previous renewals without any significant environmental review and without any changes to the stipulations included in the original agreement. “We wouldn’t be surprised to see some updated stipulations,” said McFarlin. But, he added, company officials don’t believe the BLM can deny the renewals under the current circumstances.

In the meantime, the terms and conditions of the now-expired lease remain in effect.” Even so, said McFarlin, “we’d like to see the BLM get the process moving again.”

A Year in the Wilderness

Monday, June 22, 2015
Posted by
Amy Freeman

Shortly after completing Paddle to DC, our 100-day, 2,000-mile expedition to raise awareness about the threat of proposed copper mines in a sulfide ore body on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, the realization set in that we still have a lot of work to do to protect the Boundary Waters watershed from sulfide-ore copper mining. So we stayed engaged in the work of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters and came up with a new plan.

On the Fall Equinox (September 23, 2015) Dave and I will launch our canoe in the Kawishiwi River and paddle into the Boundary Waters. We will then remain in the nation’s most popular Wilderness area for a full year. We will camp at approximately 120 different sites during this Year in the Wilderness and travel more than 3,000 miles by canoe, foot, ski, snowshoe and dog team.

Why? We are wilderness guides and educators and this is a way to make use of our unique skill set. We care deeply about this place and we will do everything within our power to ensure that it remains intact for the next generation. As we travel, we will share the adventure through photos, videos, blog posts, radio interviews and other media outlets to try and amplify the voice of what Sigurd Olson called the “Singing Wilderness.” People can also experience the rugged landscape of this 1.1 million-acre wilderness firsthand by participating in resupply missions to meet up with us in the Boundary Waters.

The next year and a half is a critical time and we all must do everything we can to ensure that the Boundary Waters is protected from sulfide-ore copper mining. This is not your typical expedition geared toward traveling from point A to point B in X amount of time; rather it is about bearing witness to the very land and water we are fighting to protect.

We will get to know this special place more intimately than we ever have before, documenting flora and fauna, collecting water quality data from every major lake, and sharing the experience online and in person with the brave decision-makers, journalists, photographers, videographers, artists, storytellers, and individuals who choose to join us from time to time—not to mention 100,000 school children and their teachers who will participate in the educational aspects of the adventure through the Wilderness Classroom.

So stay tuned. We look forward to sharing the adventure with you!


Help support A Year in the Wilderness by voting for the Freemans in the Canoe & Kayak magazine Dream Your Adventure contest (Voting closed July 15).

 

Dave Freeman and Amy Freeman were named National Geographic's 2014 Adventurers of the Year.

[PHOTOS: Top, Nate Ptacek. Bottom, Van Conrad]

Science Desk: What about the Moose?

Monday, June 15, 2015
Posted by
Rachel Garwin

I remember the first Boundary Waters moose I ever saw. We’d just finished our evening camp chores--washing pots, taking down the clothes drying line, and hanging our food in a tree--when I heard a crash of underbrush across the small lake. Dusk was falling, and with it came the Interstate-loud drone of June mosquitoes. Despite the clouds of bugs, I ran to the rocky canoe landing to investigate the disturbance. As light faded from the spruce bog on the other shore, I saw a dark shadow move, then bolt. It splashed into the water, and I could tell from its gangly height and massive build that it was that iconic animal of the Northwoods: a moose. Over the next six years that I instructed multiweek wilderness canoe expeditions in the Boundary Waters, however, I saw fewer than half a dozen.

Ask most wilderness travelers, and they’ll tell you that a wildlife encounter can take a good experience in nature into the realm of the incredible. In fact, studies conducted of people who visit wilderness areas show that wildlife viewing is a highly desirable outcome during their wilderness experience (Driver et al., 1987). The benefit of these experiences ranges from the mundane (seeing animals is exciting, and they’re cute!) to the sublime. Observing animals as they go about their lives with little interference from human activity is awe inspiring, as the experience can help us connect to something larger than our own lives (Driver et al., 1987). Meeting a black bear or snapping turtle with bare toes can get the heart pumping and adds to the authentic wilderness experience--not only have you survived the perceived danger of the woods, but it makes a great story to tell friends and family.

Wildlife contribute more than just exciting or spiritual encounters. Animal behaviors can actually physically impact the environment, and they play a major role in creating a functional ecological system. In landmark studies conducted on Michigan’s Isle Royale National Park in the 1980s, ecologists found that moose’s food preferences played an important role in determining the types of shrubs and small trees present in the forest understory. “Selective browsing,” as it is called, in turn affected the types of leaves on the forest floor, which in turn influenced the types of microbes present in the soil. Thus moose likely played an important role in the cycling of nutrients in Isle Royale’s boreal forest, which is similar in a lot of ways to the forest in and around the Boundary Waters (Pastor et al., 1988).

It is just such complex relationships among ecological processes that are significantly threatened by industrial activity, such as those involved in sulfide-ore copper mining. Minnesota’s moose are already facing the struggle of their lives. Climate change, disease, parasites and the increased abundance of winter ticks are all implicated in the decline of Minnesota’s moose population in recent years, which led their listing as a state species of special concern. Moose are rare enough now on the Mesabi Iron Range that recent sightings of two young moose near Cherry, Minnesota, drew crowds of spectators. Though they are not as common as they once were, moose are still present in the area where Twin Metals proposes its sulfide-ore copper mine near the Boundary Waters. I’ve seen moose on the Little Isabella River, Rice Lake, and along Highway 1 between the Birch Lake and S. Kawishiwi River bridges. A hiker recently reported seeing fresh moose pellets in the area where Twin Metals proposes to build its 1,000-acre concentrator facility on the shore of Birch Lake.

What, then, would happen to the moose that divide their time between the Boundary Waters and the rich Superior National Forest that surrounds it if sulfide-ore copper mining is allowed to proceed along the Wilderness’s border? Large amounts of traffic from commuters and heavy supply trucks would increase the risk of moose-vehicle collisions, a danger not only to moose but also to the people in the vehicles. Twenty-four-hour noise, lights and dust pollution could make the National Forest on the edge of the Boundary Waters inhospitable for moose. Additionally, Research at the Natural Resources Research Institute suggests that cow moose seem to choose sites for giving birth and hunkering down for the first handful of weeks afterward with preference for “conifer swamps and riparian areas near beaver ponds or small rivers,” which the area near the proposed Twin Metals site has in abundance. Added to the existing difficulties that moose face, these stresses might tip northeastern Minnesota’s moose population over the edge.

Should moose suffer this fate, wildlife watchers, wilderness travelers and hunters would lose the opportunities to experience such incredible creatures. Northeastern Minnesota’s boreal forest may also lose a crucial actor that helps govern the makeup of tree and shrub species, as well as the microbe and nutrient cycling processes in the soil. Are we willing to take that risk?

References
Driver, B., Nash, R., & Haas, G. (1987). Wilderness Benefits: A State-of-Knowledge Review. In R. C. Lucas (Ed.), Proceedings--National Wilderness Research Conference: Issues, State-of-Knowledge, Future Directions. Paper 78. (pp. 294–319). Ogden, UT: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Intermountain Research Station

Pastor, J., Naiman, R. J., Dewey, B., & McInnes, P. F. (1988). Moose, microbes, and the boreal forest. BioScience, 38(11), 770–777.

[PHOTO: Mark Carlson]

Rachel Garwin is the Campaign's policy director. She holds an M.S. in Natural Resources from the University of Vermont. Every month, Science Desk will include our latest scientific support and share a deeper understanding of the potential environmental impact from sulfide-ore copper mining near the Boundary Waters.

Science Desk: How Sulfide-Ore Copper Mines Pollute

Friday, May 8, 2015
Posted by
Rachel Garwin

Have you ever wondered just how sulfide-ore copper mines pollute their surrounding environments? It’s a good question, because in order to understand the environmental impacts to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Voyageurs National Park, we must first understand all of the ways sulfide-ore copper mining can cause harm to the surrounding lakes, streams, wetlands and forests. Independent studies show many vectors of pollution, and combined they create a significant risk of contaminating the Boundary Waters.

Sulfide-ore copper mining is a risky type of mining that has never been done before in Minnesota. No matter the method, sulfide-ore copper mines proposed near the Boundary Waters would extract trace amounts of metals from large volumes of rock. Rock is blasted from pit walls and sorted into metal-bearing ore and waste rock. In the mine's first years, 4.1 million tons of waste rock will be stockpiled on the surface while the mine is hollowed out. The sulfide-bearing ore deemed to be economically valuable is crushed to increase surface area and then sent to a surface stockpile before entering the concentrator plant where the metals are chemically extracted. Since less than 1% of the rock contains metals of interest, ninety-nine percent of the rock mined turns out to be economically value-less and will remain in perpetuity in the tailings storage facility, waste rock storage piles and as backfill in the underground mine itself. No metal recovery method is 100% efficient, and metals and sulfides are left behind in the tailings. Tailings also contain residue from the explosives used to blast the pit wall, chemicals used to separate metals from sulfide minerals, and other ore components with little economic value.

When sulfide minerals in ore, tailings or waste rock are exposed to air and water, acid mine drainage develops. Oxidation and hydrolysis reactions turn otherwise benign minerals into toxic materials, including acid, metals (e.g., mercury, copper, nickel, lead and zinc) and sulfates (Jennings et al. 2008). Acidic conditions further catalyze these reactions, making them proceed at faster rates than would otherwise occur (Jennings et al. 2008).

The sulfide-ore copper mining industry has a disastrous track record. A peer-reviewed report prepared by Earthworks studied fourteen sulfide-ore copper mines representing 89% of current U.S. copper production. Of those fourteen mines, all had experienced some sort of pipeline spill or other accidental release. Thirteen of the fourteen (92%) had experienced water collection and treatment failures that resulted in significant impacts to water quality. The tailings dam failure at the Mount Polley Mine in British Columbia in August 2014 shows the catastrophic potential for such failures (Earthworks 2012).

Run-of-the-mill pipeline leaks and seepage from underground mine sites are also serious vectors for contamination as shown by Dr. Tom Myers, a hydrology consultant who has studied the preliminary plans for mines proposed near the Boundary Waters. The Twin Metals pre-feasibility study calls for a massive network of pipelines to dispose of sulfide-, metal- and chemical- laden tailings. Half of the tailings would be piped from the 1,000-acre concentrator facility on the shore of Birch Lake; the other half would be piped back underground. Based on industry history (Earthworks 2012) and the danger of northeastern Minnesota’s extreme cold freezing and blocking pipes, this pipeline network carries a high risk of failure.

In addition to tailings dam failures and pipeline leaks, sulfide-ore copper mines can pollute through seepage from underground pits and surface waste rock and sulfide-bearing ore. These pollution vectors are hard to detect and difficult to fix. By exposing sulfides minerals in the pit walls to oxygen and water, they are able to produce acid mine drainage. Cracks in the bedrock connecting the underground mine to groundwater can then transmit the generated acid mine drainage to streams, lakes, and some wetlands. It is reasonable to expect that underground seepage of pollutants from the Spruce Road deposit owned by Twin Metals would eventually penetrate the Boundary Waters, according to modeling conducted by Dr. Myers. Any surface storage of waste rock, tailings and sulfide-bearing ore also creates the opportunity for water bearing acid, heavy metals, or sulfates to seep into groundwater despite engineered liners designed to contain them. All liners leak to some extent, and no liner has been tested over the decades and centuries required to permanently protect the Boundary Waters from pollution from sulfide-ore copper mining.

In light of the combined facts that sulfide-ore copper mining on the edge of the Boundary Waters would likely contaminate the Boundary Waters and surrounding lakes, rivers and streams, and that the industry has a poor track record of preventing water quality impacts, it is clear that sulfide-ore copper mining would be too risky for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Voyageurs National Park.

References
Earthworks. 2012. "U.S. Copper Porphyry Mines Report: The Track Record of Water Quality Impacts Resulting from Pipeline Spills, Tailings Failures and Water Collection and Treatment Failures." Earthworks, Washington, DC.

Jennings, S.R., Neuman, D.R. and Blicker, P.S. 2008. "Acid Mine Drainage and Effects on Fish Health and Ecology: A Review." Reclamation Research Group Publication, Bozeman, MT.

[TOP PHOTO: Carol Stoker, NASA; BOTTOM PHOTO: Mount Polley Tailings Pond Breach—Jonathan Hayward / The Canadian Press]

Rachel Garwin is the Campaign's policy director. She holds an M.S. in Natural Resources from the University of Vermont. Every month, Science Desk will include our latest scientific support and share a deeper understanding of the potential environmental impact from sulfide-ore copper mining near the Boundary Waters.

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