Why We Should Prevent Mining in the Boundary Waters by Carson Dudley

With well over 150,000 yearly visitors, Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is the nation’s most visited wilderness. The Boundary Waters’ over 1 million acres and 1,100 lakes stretch over 200 miles along the United States’ northern border, housing timberwolves, bears, moose, and many species of fish[1]. However, recently the future of the Boundary Waters has been called into question. Mining companies have long wanted access to the metal ore contained in the Boundary Waters. From 1888 to 1967, over three-quarters of the nation’s iron ore production was done in the town of Ely near the Boundary Waters[2], however, mining companies have long been denied access to the Boundary Waters and the areas adjacent, as they are a National Wilderness Area. Now President Trump is looking to change that, despite potential negative environmental impacts and unproven economic benefits. The science does not stand with Trump, and, for that reason, neither should we.

Mining companies’ interest in the Boundary Waters is hardly a recent development. In 1978, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act was passed to turn the Boundary Waters and surrounding areas into a Mining Protection Area[3]. However, prior to the ban, the Bureau of Land Management had already issued two federal mineral leases directly adjacent to the Boundary Waters. Twin Metals Minnesota, a subsidiary of a Chilean mining company, acquired both leases. These leases were initially 20-year leases. They were renewed twice, but in 2016, Obama’s Bureau of Land Management denied their renewal, citing environmental risks[4]. However, in 2018, the Trump Administration reinstated both the leases.

Even if mining is contained to areas adjacent to the Boundary Waters, it is not without risk. Many of the metals contained in Minnesota are encased in sulfide ore. When sulfide ore is exposed to air and water, sulfuric acid is created, the primary ingredient in acid rain. Twin Metals insists they will be able to mine without environmental impact, but a 2012 study on copper mines (similar to what Twin Metals seeks to build) found that “all of the mines [in the study] experienced at least one failure, with most mines experiencing multiple failures[5].” In this context, a “failure” is defined as a pipeline spill, tailings dam breakage, or water treatment malfunction, all of which expose toxic chemicals to the environment. Research has shown that these accidents could be disastrous for the Boundary Waters. A single mining failure could wipe out many species of fish due to increased water acidity, and the sulfates and heavy metals could pose a risk to plants, animals, and humans in the area1.

Proponents of mining say that, despite possible environmental harm, mining is essential to the economy. Fortunately, this is not true. A 2018 Harvard study showed that while mining in Ely may provide a short-term boost to the economy, within 20 years, the detrimental environmental impact and consequential reduction in tourism to the Boundary Waters could lead to a net negative impact on the economy[6].

Despite these negatives, the Trump Administration is expanding mining in Northern Minnesota. In 2017, the Department of Agriculture began a two-year study to determine the safety of continuing mining near the Boundary Waters. However, 20 months into the 24-month study, it was abruptly cancelled. Minnesota senators were furious, claiming that stopping the study “started a roller coaster of events that will lead to the destruction of these pristine waters[7].”

Despite the cancellation of the study, we still have sufficient evidence to draw conclusions as to what should be done regarding the Boundary Waters. I am tempted to simply hold up the 2018 study showing that mining would not help the economy and label this a closed case. After all, if economic activity would hurt the environment and be a net drag on the economy, concluding that we shouldn’t do it is easy, at least from a societal perspective. Those who would individually profit from the mining may have a different view, of course.

However, I think I would be doing the Boundary Waters a disservice if I didn’t also point out that the Trump Administration’s decision-making follows a pattern that is damaging to the environment, unfair to those who want to protect it, and illegal. The USDA study was cancelled after being over 80% completed. Can anyone make a good faith argument that the cancellation was random? That no external factors effected it? This isn’t the first time the Trump Administration has tried to sidestep environmental science to aid mining and other harmful behaviors. The Center for American Progress articulates this better than I ever could: “the Boundary Waters case is emblematic of the Trump Administration’s modus operandi: bypass the regulatory process by shortcutting scientific assessment, ignoring local opposition, and bending the law1.” This is reflected in the Trump Administration’s 6% success rate in court cases related to the Administrative Procedure Act, compared to the 70% average for previous administrations. Trump clearly wants unrestricted access to mining and extraction, regardless of the environmental consequences. I’m not putting words into his mouth; Trump is currently making a rule to allow the government to ignore the environmental impact of major projects[8].

If this strategy continues, America’s natural spaces will be eroded away slowly. Currently, a football field’s worth of American nature disappears every 30 seconds, making roads, pipelines, and warehouses[9]. If mining near the Boundary Waters continues, and the nearly inevitable mining accident happens, the Boundary Waters could soon become part of that statistic. All mining adjacent to the Boundary Waters must be ceased, all permits revoked, until it is rigorously proven that the mining will not harm the Boundary Waters. As of now, the data suggests that mining would pollute the Boundary Waters permanently, so we must operate under that assumption until proven otherwise. If you want to mine near Wilderness Areas, which have society’s highest level of protection, the burden of proof is on you to show that it would not be harmful. In the case of the Boundary Waters, that burden is far from met, so mining can not be allowed to proceed.

[1] Carlos Rivero Lopez and Jenny Rowland-Shea. “Boundary Waters at Risk.” Center for American Progress, 8 May 2019, www.americanprogress.org/issues/green/reports/2019/05/08/469509/boundary-waters-risk/.

[2] Pearson, Stephanie. “The Uncertain Future of the Boundary Waters.” Outside Online, Outside Magazine, 20 May 2019, www.outsideonline.com/2396703/boundary-waters-mining.

[3] “Forty Years and Counting- the BWCAW Act.” United States Department of Agriculture, USDA, www.fs.usda.gov/detail/superior/specialplaces/?cid=stelprdb5203434.

[4] “Obama Administration Takes Steps to Protect Watershed of the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area.” USDA, 15 Dec. 2016, www.usda.gov/media/press-releases/2016/12/15/obama-administration-takes-steps-protect-watershed-boundary-waters.

[5] Gestring, Bonnie. “US Copper Porphyry Mines.” Earthworks, 5 Nov. 2018, earthworks.org/publications/us_copper_porphyry_mines/.

[6] Stock, James H. U.S. Forest Service (USFS) Environmental Assessment (EA) on Proposed 20-Year Mineral Leasing Withdrawal in Superior National Forest. 6 Aug. 2018, scholar.harvard.edu/files/stock/files/snf_withdrawal_ea_stock_and_bradt_aug6_2018.pdf.

[7] Committee, House Appropriations, director. Department of Agriculture Budget Request for Fiscal Year 2020. YouTube, YouTube, 9 Apr. 2019, www.youtube.com/watch?v=fH1usfNfB6c.

[8] Jean Chemnick, E&E News Jan. 9, et al. “New Trump Rule Would Allow Government to Ignore Climate Impacts of Major Projects.” Science, 9 Jan. 2020, www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/01/new-trump-rule-would-allow-government-ignore-climate-impacts-major-projects.

[9] Matt Lee-Ashley, the CAP Public Lands Team. “How Much Nature Should America Keep?” Center for American Progress, 6 Aug. 2019, www.americanprogress.org/issues/green/reports/2019/08/06/473242/much-nature-america-keep/.

One thought on “Why We Should Prevent Mining in the Boundary Waters by Carson Dudley

  1. Hi Carson,
    I fully agree with your argument here. Watching the Trump administration repeatedly ignore science in favor of industry has been incredibly frustrating these past couple years. From opening up national parks to fossil fuel development to reducing clean water protections, the importance of preserving our ecosystems and the services they provide seems entirely dismissed by our current leadership. I personally have found it extremely irritating to watch media coverage of Trump focusing on his twitter account and un-presidential behavior and under-reporting many of the administration’s worst and most nonsensical policies. I wonder if Trump’s supporters who espouse America first principals would agree with destroying our natural resources to favor a Chilean mining company. It’s difficult to think of a policy strategy to combat Trump on these fronts, given that the lands in question are federally owned. While I agree that the mining must be ceased, I don’t see a path to get there with the current administration.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.