USDA Reopens Boundary Waters Watershed to Mining

10 Reasons Why This is a Bad Idea


Earlier this month, the USDA announced that it will reopen 365 square miles of mineral leasing and sulfide mining in the Superior National Forest near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA) watershed.

This action cancels a proposed 20-year mining ban and breaks a government promise to conduct a two-year environmental study on America's most visited wilderness area. In 2016, the U.S. Department of the Interior and USDA took steps to protect the watershed of the BWCA, home of more than one million acres of forests and lakes. Their actions denied a sulfide-ore copper lease renewal application and also committed to further study of potential environmental impacts.

With the most recent administration’s decision, Twin Metals, a subsidiary of the Chilean mining company Antofagasta, is now one step closer in developing an underground mine on the edge of BWCA near Ely, Minn.

In a statement on Sept. 6, 2018, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said that removing this major obstacle [the environmental study] to mineral leasing will "protect the integrity of the watershed and contribute to economic growth and stronger communities.

And while Twin Metals states responsible mining is compatible with wilderness preservation, environmental advocacy groups, economists and scientists are skeptical.

10 Reasons Why Sulfide Mining is Bad for the Environment and Economy:

1.Pollution from these mines will flow directly into the Boundary Waters.
Environmental advocates say a single mine in this watershed will continually pollute the wilderness for at least 500 years.

2. History has a tendency to repeat itself with catastrophic results.
In the history of sulfide mining, pollution has never been avoided even with state-of-the-art infrastructures. For example, a tailings dam breach released 4.5 million cubic meters of toxic slurry into a lake and river system. A tailings dam, pond or storage facility is what stores the uneconomical ore (waste rock, sand and silt) and water from the mining process.  

Image from: Duluth Reader

Image from: Duluth Reader

3. Hard-rock mining, most of which is sulfide mining, contributes to more superfund sites than any other activity.
Superfund is a U.S. federal government program designed to fund the cleanup of sites contaminated with hazardous substances and pollutants. A 2017 Washington Post article stated, "Over the past 20 years, American taxpayers have spent more than $21 billion in cleanup and oversight costs for properties polluted by dangerous wastes, known as Superfund sites, while hundreds of companies responsible for contaminating water paid little to nothing."

4. Economic boost in mining is temporary.
James Stock, a Harvard University professor of economics and former member of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, found that in 20 years the economy around the Boundary Waters would be in worse shape with mining than without it. While there could be a temporary economic boost, jobs would disappear once the ore taps out – as would the outdoor recreation industry.

5. Sets a precedent for more mining.
Save the Boundary Waters organization predicts, "This is more than just one mine. It is the first step toward an industrial corridor of mines, mills, roads, rail lines and toxic tailing piles at the edge of the Boundary Waters."

6. Wildlife is at risk. BWCA provides a critical habitat for wildlife, including several endangered and threatened species. According to the Save the Boundary Waters' website, acid-mine drainage and other pollutants could potentially destroy aquatic ecosystems.

7. Forests suffer. When groundwater, lakes, streams and wetlands are negatively impacted, the forests that surround those bodies of water are at risk also.

8. Destroy tourism and related jobs. Environmental groups say tourism is a more sustainable strategy. Tourism in the Boundary Waters generates $913 million in revenue per year and creates 17,000 jobs that support local families and businesses.  

9. 24/7 noise pollution. Mining is typically a 24/7, 365-day operation, resulting in considerable noise pollution, which would disrupt BWCA's tranquil and relaxing setting.  

10. Family experiences and traditions jeopardized. Minnesotans have passed down their love of the outdoors and the Boundary Waters to their children for many years. Irresponsible mining could threaten this tradition for future generations.

How can you help protect the Boundary Waters?   

Here are a few recommendations from Save the Boundary Waters.