This is the third in a three-part series that will explore the history of Lake Superior and the Boundary waters, the communities affected by two proposed copper mines, the arguments in favor and against the mines, and what the mines might mean for the future of the Great Lakes. Read the first part here and the second part here.
David Seaton still remembers the vivid impression his father made the first time he came back from the Boundary Waters. A minister, Seaton’s father would bring kids out to the Boundary Waters for canoe trips and always came back from those trips “with a beard and a smile on his face,” Seaton said. Later, Seaton himself would explore that wilderness and realized it was the place he felt happiest in the world. Thirty years ago, Seaton left Minneapolis for the northeastern part of the state, where he eventually created Hungry Jack Outfitters. The business provides food, gear and travel advice for exploring the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and rents out several cabins.
This May, Hungry Jack Outfitters was one of nine wilderness-dependent businesses and several conservation groups to file a lawsuit in federal district court challenging the 2019 renewal of two mineral leases granted to Twin Metals Minnesota.
“Historically, copper mining is the dirtiest industry on the planet. And there’s never been a copper mine that hasn’t polluted everything downstream from it in the United States,” Seaton said. “At some point you have to stand up for what you believe in, and I just don’t believe that the benefits of having the mine outweigh the consequences that seem inevitable.”
Now the second sulfide-ore copper mine to begin the research and permitting stage in Minnesota, the Twin Metals Minnesota project would be located on Birch Lake just outside the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Though Twin Metals’ proposed mine is in northeastern Minnesota along the Iron Range just like PolyMet’s proposed mine, there are a number of differences between the two.
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Unlike PolyMet, Twin Metals would be an underground mine. The company also proposes to build everything new, rather than renovating an older facility as PolyMet plans to do. Lastly, the PolyMet mine would be built on private land (after a land exchange from the Forest Service) and sit in the St. Louis River and Lake Superior watersheds, upstream from Duluth and the Fond du Lac Reservation. Twin Metals, on the other hand, is leasing public land in Superior National Forest and would be within the Boundary Waters watershed.
Yet for all their differences, the two projects have faced similar arguments from locals and environmental groups as well as support from pro-mining groups. Once again, the issue boils down to a central question: can companies mine copper without irreparable damage to the environment?
The History of Wilderness Areas and the Boundary Waters
In 1964, the U.S. Congress passed the Wilderness Act, legislation meant to establish protection for wild areas across the country “for the permanent good of the whole people.” With a new legal definition for wilderness, the act originally designated 9.1 million acres of wilderness, including the Boundary Waters. Since that time, the designation has grown to encompass 109.5 million acres of federally owned land.
From the start, the Boundary Waters has been a unique landscape among those ecosystems protected under the act. It includes more than 1,000 lakes connected by hundreds of miles of streams, and is one of the most heavily used wilderness areas in the country. According to the U.S. Forest Service, the area includes over 1,200 miles of canoe routes, 12 hiking trails, and more than 2,000 campsites.
Those features are part of what has made the BWCAW so special to visitors, including Alison Flint, who went on her first canoe trip at age 5.
“The canoe trips I took throughout my childhood and adolescence instilled a sense of adventure, self-reflection, teamwork and leadership skills, and a deep respect for wild places,” Flint said. Now the senior legal director for the Wilderness Society, Flint has also worked as a guide for Boundary Waters canoe trips for youths, including disabled teenaged girls from disadvantaged communities.
For a time, the area around the BWCAW has also been protected, specifically by a 1978 law that banned mining inside the wilderness area and in a protective zone. But as far back as 1966, the Bureau of Land Management has also leased mineral rights to various companies on land within Superior National Forest and adjacent to the BWCAW. These are the mineral rights that ultimately came into the hands of Twin Metals.
The company is a subsidiary of Chilean mining giant Antofagasta, one of the world’s largest producers of copper. In 2012, Twin Metals applied for a renewal of two mineral leases that would allow them to explore for and potentially mine copper within Superior National Forest. The Bureau of Land Management initially rejected the company’s application in 2016 and the Forest Service initiated an environmental impact study on withdrawing mineral leasing from some 234,000 acres of Superior National Forest lands within the Boundary Waters watershed.
But things began changing when the Trump Administration came into power. The Bureau of Land Management reinstated the expired mineral leases to Twin Metals, and the USFS ended its study prematurely—without ever releasing the results of the study, despite multiple Freedom of Information Act requests and lawsuits.
Harming the environment or using technology to protect it?
Opponents of the mine have pointed to numerous environmental problems that could arise if the mine moves forward. They’ve cited the risk of acid mine drainage polluting the waterways, a processing facility that would cause industrial noise and degrade air quality, and forest fragmentation that would impact wildlife and plants. A more nebulous political concern is the fact that the Chilean Luksic family, who own Antofagasta and therefore Twin Metals, also rent out a mansion in Washington, D.C., to Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, as the New York Times has reported.
But advocates of the mine point out that it will bring jobs to the region and use more advanced technology to keep the environment safe even as it mines 20,000 tons per day.
“This will be the first underground mine in Minnesota sine the closure of Pioneer Mine in Ely back in 1967 and it’s a type of mining with tried and true technology,” said Kathy Graul, public relations manager for Twin Metals. Although the company only has a staff of 20 people right now, she anticipates the fully operational mine will employ more than 700 people full-time and will create around 1,400 spin-off jobs in transportation, healthcare and hospitality.
One of the technologies the company has pointed to in their plan has been the proposed use of dry stacking technology. Instead of creating a tailings basin dam as PolyMet has proposed, Twin Metals plans to create a huge, lined pile of tailings near the mine’s processing plant. After filtering most of the water out of the tailings, the mineral remains would be mounded into a large, contained hill that in theory wouldn’t leech into nearby bodies of water.
“We feel really strongly that the project we’ve proposed is technologically advanced and we’re confident we can mine safely, not just for employees, but protecting the environment as well,” Graul said.
Seaton, the owner of Hungry Jack Outfitters, thinks it’s certainly possible for mines to coexist with environmental protection.
“You can do anything with enough money, but it’s going to cost a lot,” Seaton said. “It seems very apparent to me that if there were any chance this mine could occur without great liability, there would be a U.S.-based company or a Minnesota-based company that would be willing to make that gamble. But that’s not the case. Yeah, you can send someone to the moon, but how much does it cost?”
Nancy Schuldt, the water projects coordinator for the Fond du Lac Band, said she’s kept up with developments on the Twin Metals project as well as PolyMet’s proposed mine.
“It’s going to be interesting to go through this environmental review process with a project that looks so very different,” Schuldt said. “There’s much less waste to manage when you do an underground mine, but it comes with its own risks and challenges. It’s going to be an entirely different ballgame.”
The uncertain future of environmental protections
Since Twin Metals began its Minnesota project almost a decade later than PolyMet, it is much farther behind in the review and permitting process. The company is only now in the scoping stage, where it works on an environmental assessment worksheet and then opens up to a public comment period. Graul estimated it might take up to seven years before construction could even begin.
But in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Trump Administration has made a number of moves to limit environmental regulations and expedite major projects. One such undertaking has been to weaken the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires federal agencies to investigate the environmental impacts of projects like airports, highways and pipelines. On June 4, the president signed an executive order that directed federal agencies to waive environmental reviews, so that projects might move forward more rapidly.
“With the White House on the cusp of finalizing its NEPA rollbacks, we may see the upcoming environmental impact statement to permit a Twin Metals mine as one of the early test-cases for the new regulations,” Flint said. “We could also see the agencies attempt to ignore longer-term impacts associated with locating a permanent toxic waste dump on the shores of a popular recreational lake or with the company’s plans to ultimately expand the mine to the edge of the Wilderness.”
In May, the Bureau of Land Management renewed 13 prospecting permits for Twin Metals that environmental advocates argue could allow the company to expand its copper mines right up to the edge of the Boundary Waters border. With permits that won’t expire until 2024, the company will be allowed to conduct road work and drill holes for mining exploration.
But Minnesota politicians in Congress are also pushing back against the proposed mine. Rep. Betty McCollum introduced the Boundary Waters Wilderness Protection and Pollution Prevent Act back in January, which would ban copper-nickel mining across federal land near the Boundary Waters. Flint said it’s critical for Congress to act to protect this landscape, especially with the threat of an expedited environmental review process.
But with other Minnesota politicians fighting just as hard against the bill and in favor of mining, it’s unclear whether it will move forward. With appeals and lawsuits still awaiting court decisions, Twin Metals, like PolyMet, may have a long path ahead of it before any mine is actually built.
This report was made possible in part by the Fund for Environmental Journalism of the Society of Environmental Journalists. SEJ credits The Hewlett Foundation, The Wilderness Society, The Pew Charitable Trust, and individual donors for supporting this project.
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Featured image: In this Oct. 4, 2011, file photo, a prospecting drill rig bores into the bedrock near Ely, Minn., in search of copper, nickel and precious metals that Twin Metals Minnesota LLC hopes to mine near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northeastern Minnesota. (AP Photo/Steve Karnowski, File)