Mining near the Border Waters Canoe Area Wilderness

Photo: Canoeists exploring Seagull Lake in the Boundary Waters. Credit: Matthew Urke


The Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) is a wilderness area covering over 1 million acres of the Superior National Forest in northeast Minnesota. A vast system of glacial lakes and rivers is connected by over 1200 miles of canoe routes and portages, 12 hiking trails, and over 2000 campsites[1]. Most of the lakes are only reachable by canoe. A pristine ecosystem of fish and wildlife draws fishing, canoeing, and hiking enthusiasts, and with over 250,000 visitors each year, the BWCA is the most visited wilderness area in the country[2].


The Boundary Waters are at risk.

Twin Metals, a subsidiary of the Chile-based Antofagasta mining conglomerate, has pushed to conduct open sulfide mining on the land bordering the wilderness area[3]. The FDA has listed sulfide mining as the most toxic industry in the country[4].


In 2016, the Forest Service under the Obama administration suspended mining exploration in the area by instating a two-year ban while a proper environmental impact study could be conducted. The decision proposed a withdrawal of 234,000 acres[5] of national forest lands that would have put a 20-year ban on mining in the BWCA watershed[6]. In September 2018, several months before the study was to be completed, Trump-appointed U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue abruptly halted the environmental review saying it “did not reveal new scientific information”[7]. The Forest Service did not release any of the findings that informed this decision.


Now, the Boundary Waters are at risk of contamination from the acidic sulfide mining process. The waste produced by sulfide mining creates sulfuric acid when exposed to air and water[8]. This acid releases heavy metals and chemicals from the mined rocks, which will seep into the surrounding soil and waterways[9]. There is significant potential that sulfide mining would release arsenic, asbestos, cadmium, lead, and mercury, all of which are listed by the World Health Organization as critical human health concerns due to their connection to neurodevelopmental disorders[10]. If these toxins contaminate the lakes and rivers of northeast Minnesota, the health and safety of local communities and visitors would be seriously compromised, and the effects could last for over 500 years[11].


Sulfide-ore mining has a disastrous track record.  A 2012 peer-reviewed study of 14 sulfide-ore copper mines, accounting for 89% of the U.S. industry, showed that all of the mines in the study experienced pipeline spills or accidental releases[12]. In addition, 13 of the 14 mines had water collection and treatment failures, resulting in mining acid seepage that caused serious water quality effects[13]. Given this abysmal environmental record, these mines are too dangerous to place on the edge of the pristine wilderness of the BWCA. The question of damage is not if, but how bad.


Every lake, river, and stream in the BWCA is connected, and the geology of the area cannot naturally buffer acid mine waste[14]. Water quality is integral to the Boundary Waters, which provides a critical habitat for many species including moose and Canadian lynx[15]. Acid mine drainage increases water acidity, which challenges the survival of aquatic species. In a chain reaction spurred by increased water acidity and contamination, minnows, walleye, northern pike, bass, trout and loons would all face an increased risk to their survival.


The Economics:

  • Tourism to the BWCA generates $913 million in annual revenue that supports local businesses and families[16]. During the summer, tourism in northeastern Minnesota adds over 1,000 jobs[17].
  • A 2012 study suggested mining near the BWCA would add only $220 million in yearly revenue and several hundred jobs to the local economy[18].
  • Mining in the BWCA watershed could result in a loss of 4,490 jobs and $288 million in annual revenue loss for the tourism industry[19].
  • Many studies show that while mining would add an initial economic bump, it would leave the region with a prolonged economic recovery due to the unsustainable nature of the industry[20].


From an economic perspective, the tourism industry of the BWCA is better for northeast Minnesota than mining.


Step One:

In a statement on the Trump administration’s cancellation of the environmental study, U.S. Congresswoman Betty McCollum (D-MN 4th District) and lead Democrat on the House subcommittee for Interior-Environment Appropriations, which funds the U.S. Forest Service, said the decision “completely disregards the scientific evidence that sulfide-ore mining in the watershed will cause irreparable harm to the pristine wilderness of the Boundary Waters”[21].


The United States Forest Service should reinstate the environmental impact study that was abruptly cut short to disregard the scientific findings that Secretary Perdue did not want to release. Becky Rom, an activist with the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters said it was clear that Perdue chose to not release findings because they would make “an exceptional case for the withdrawal in every respect[22].


The U.S. Department of Agriculture originally expected to study the proposed ban for two years, after which the findings would be sent to the secretary of the Interior for a decision based on the scientific findings[23]. The scientific data from this study, and not the influence of foreign mining conglomerates seeking profit, should inform the decision process with regards to mining leases near BWCA.



There is overwhelming evidence that prioritizing the BWCA wilderness over mining exploration would have numerous economic benefits, as well as protect the health and safety of local communities, and the fish and wildlife native to the lakes and forests. House Democrats should take up legislation to reverse the Agriculture Secretary’s decision to cut short the environmental study and immediately reinstate the ban on mining exploration until the study can be thoroughly conducted and the results can be properly evaluated and shared. Congresswoman McCollum, as a lead Democrat on the committee that funds the USFS, can lead efforts to reduce and reverse the impacts of Secretary Perdue’s calculated sell-out of the BWCA to foreign mining interests. It is time to stand up for the BWCA and save one of the last truly wild places in America.


Works Cited

[1] United States Department of Agriculture. Superior National Forest, “Special Places,”, n.d.

[2] The Wilderness Society. “20 Popular American Wilderness Areas,”, n.d.

[3] Dan Kraker. “Feds reopen forests near Boundary Waters to mining,” MPR News, September 6, 2018.

[4] Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, “Sulfide Mining,” n.d

[5] Josephine Marcotty. “Defeat for Minnesota wilderness protection means back to business for mining,” Star Tribune, September 10, 2018.

[6] Dan Kraker. “Feds reopen forests near Boundary Waters…,” MPR News.

[7] USDA Forest Service Press Office, “USDA Removes Roadblock to Mineral Exploration in Rainy River Watershed,” USDA Press Release, September 6, 2018.

[8] Josephine Marcotty. “Defeat for Minnesota wilderness…,” Star Tribune.

[9] Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, “Sulfide Mining.”

[10] Minnesota Medicine. “Sulfide Mining and Human Health in Minnesota,”, n.d.

[11] Save the Boundary Waters Campaign. “The Threat,”, n.d

[12] Earthworks. “Copper Sulfide Mining,” n.d.

[13] Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, “Sulfide Mining.”

[14] Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, “Sulfide Mining,”

[15] Josephine Marcotty. “Defeat for Minnesota wilderness…,” Star Tribune.

[16] Josephine Marcotty. “Defeat for Minnesota wilderness…,” Star Tribune.

[17] Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, “Sulfide Mining.”

[18] Josephine Marcotty. “Defeat for Minnesota wilderness…,” Star Tribune.

[19] Reid Forgrave, “In Northern Minnesota, Two Economies Square Off: Mining vs. Wilderness,” The New York Times, October 17, 2017.

[20] Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, “Sulfide Mining.”

[21] Betty McCollum, “McCollum statement on Trump cancellation on environmental study of mining impacts in BWCA,” Press Release, September 6, 2018.

[22] Sam Brodey, “What the Trump administration’s latest decision means for the future of mining near the boundary waters,” MinnPost, September 19, 2018.

[23] Minnesota Medicine. “Sulfide Mining and Human Health in Minnesota.”


3 thoughts on “Mining near the Border Waters Canoe Area Wilderness

  1. Pretty disheartening to hear about the failures of the government to maintain and release scientific data about the issue in the face of pressure from lobbyists. It seems to be a common trend with the current administration when dealing with environmental science. A network of environmentalists and data scientists called the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative released a pretty damning report that suggested the EPA’s ability to enforce federal environmental laws was eroding due to budget cuts and management that encouraged looser enforcement policies. Considering how much we rely on legislation like the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, the active dismantling of our federal environmental regulation infrastructure is terrifying. I hope the voters are starting to notice, because it seems like this trend will continue at least until the next presidential election.

  2. Like Yoav said, it’s very disheartening to see this kind of political action taking place despite the amount of studies and both scientific and economic evidence that fight against it. This trend of policy reversals across different administrations has been increasingly blatant with Trump’s administration and disregards the voices of the public. I completely agree with your recommendation to pursue the environmental impact study, and it goes to show how big of an effect information-based tools can have on policy. With the withholding of this information, Trump is able to disregard the numerous impacts that may conflict with their economic goals. I believe currently coalitions in Minnesota have been fighting back with a court challenge and I hope to see the public support grow in stopping the Twin Metals project as this conflict progresses.

  3. Thank you for this detailed analysis. You make a very convincing case for reinstating the BWCA mining environmental impact study. My dad has told me stories of paddling through the Boundary Waters with his parents and siblings when he was in high school; I’ve always wanted a chance to do the same, even if my arm muscles would be completely destroyed after my time there. I find it particularly concerning as a hopeful future biologist that the study was halted due to a lack of new information long before it was even to be completed. The framing of the press release is especially confusing—there is barely any mention of the impact study or the risks of sulfide mining at all! Have any concerns been raised by the Canada or Ontario or by nearby indigenous groups?

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