A mining controversy in Minnesota

When you hear the word “mining,” a variety of metals comes to mind.

There are five designated precious metals including the obvious gold, silver and platinum and the not-so-obvious palladium and rhodium. Maybe you think of magnesium, or uranium, or something more common like salt or coal.

And of course, here in Minnesota, especially up north, you think of iron.

What you may not think of is one been described as “the metal that runs the world:” Copper.

While copper is most commonly associated with pennies, it shouldn’t be. The U.S. mint started using zinc to make pennies in 1982 due to copper’s rising cost. In fact, if you have a 1981 or older penny, it’s worth about 1.9 cents today in copper.

Its primary use now is in building construction as copper wiring and plumbing are integral to the appliances, heating and cooling systems, and telecommunications links. It’s also an essential component to many parts of your car or truck, as the average American vehicle has 1-1.5 miles of copper wiring in it weighing 50-100 pounds.

As such, the price of copper has skyrocketed in recent years and shows no signs of stopping. With that increased demand and price comes increased mining, with America ranking fourth in the world in terms of production and fifth.

Not surprisingly, with the fifth largest known stores of copper in the world as well, mining companies are chomping at the bit to extract it and reap the ensuing profits.

And regardless of the metal, those in the mining industry celebrated the day Donald Trump was elected president as he followed through on a campaign pledge to loosen federal restrictions with the hopes of increasing jobs in a sector that had suffered significant losses, especially in terms of coal production.

Sure, there were environmental concerns, leading to the familiar “jobs vs. environment” argument. But that’s a controversy left for poor, dirty, economically depressed areas in the hills of Kentucky and West Virginia.

Or maybe not.

The Boundary Water Canoe Area Access, comprised of more than a million acres of land and literally hundreds of lakes and waterways, is as familiar to Minnesotans as the aforementioned iron mines so its appropriate the two are now linked.

With iron deposits decreasing, its natural for companies to look for something else and with copper prices climbing, that’s exactly what’s happening up north. In 2014, a Chilean company, Antofagasta, wanted to renew leases on nearby land with the intention of mining for copper and other materials.

The United States Forest Service, which manages the BWCAA, was given the authority to either grant or deny the request.

After a near three-year study, they said no. Emphatically.

“I find unacceptable the inherent potential risk that development of a regionally-untested copper-nickel sulfide ore mine within the same watershed as the B.W.C.A.W. might cause serious and irreplaceable harm to this unique, iconic, and irreplaceable wilderness area,” the head of the forestry service wrote in a 28-page report.

Well, one month after that report came out, Trump took office and in September, his agriculture secretary reversed the Forest Service’s decision. As a result, in May, Twin Metals Minnesota (a subsidiary of Antofagasta) renewed leases on land along the South Kawishiwi River, which flows into B.W.C.A.W. lakes, for the purpose of copper mining.

The possibility of copper mining has been labeled an “alarming threat” to the pristine natural wilderness where conservation efforts are so intense snowmobiles and glass bottles are banned.

According to an article in the July 17 edition of The New Yorker, the kind of exploration proposed is called hard-rock mining, because the copper is encased in sulfide-bearing ore. When that ore is exposed to air and water, it creates what’s called acid mine drainage, releasing various toxins into the surrounding area, including sulfuric acid.

Author Bill Carter is quoted in the article as stating “no industry creates more toxins in the United States than hard-rock mining. No large-scale copper mine has ever not had an adverse effect on the surrounding groundwater.” This claim is backed up by the forestry service study which found in a review of 14 operating copper mines in the U.S. that all 14 had experienced pipeline spills or accidental releases.

This is not good news for the boundary waters.

In other words, it’s not a matter of if the BWCAW will be affected, but when. And when that does happen, with no roads into the area and so much water to cover, the damage will be irreversible.

Needless to say, there is quite a bit of controversy and many locals who either love the unblemished wilderness or rely on it for their livelihood (or both) are fighting back trying to block the mining. Others look forward to the jobs it may bring.

Which is ironically short sighted because as was pointed out by a Harvard economist, the long-term economic benefits of tourism to the boundary waters outgains the short-term gains from mining.

Unfortunately, in this political and economic climate of jobs trumping environment, the long term doesn’t look good for those pristine waters. Better make your reservations soon and enjoy them while you can.


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