The wilderness area on the border between Minnesota and Canada faces an onslaught of mining companies moving into the area.
Since 1964, more than 200,000 adventure enthusiasts a year from throughout the nation flock to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, a 150-mile stretch of untouched wilderness along the border that separates Minnesota and Canada. Now, in the midst of a renewed resource-extraction boom in the U.S., that very area is being eyed by mining companies eager to extract the land’s copper and nickel.
More than 100 applications for exploring mineral extraction projects on public lands, most of which are near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, have already been submitted, according to environmental organization Precious Waters.
Franconia Minerals has proposed the most invasive mining exploration venture, eyeing sulfide ore deposits located between Birch Lake, which is connected to the chain of lakes that flows into the Boundary Waters.
The mine expected to lead the way for the sulfide-mining industry in Northeastern Minnesota is one proposed by PolyMet, a company based out of Vancouver, Canada financially supported by Swiss company Glencore, which is now run by former BP CEO Tony Hayward, who left the oil giant after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
While the PolyMet mine in particular is located just south of the Boundary Waters, it still represents the growing threat the area is under, as it targets the public land of the Superior National Forest and is poised to destroy more than 1,500 acres of wetlands.
The industry is touting the proposed mining project as a boom to employment in the area, projecting it to outpace Northern Minnesota’s iron ore mining industry, which employs more than 4,000 residents.
PolyMet, the mining company eyeing the Boundary Waters area, hosts a masthead on its website that reads, “Bringing Hundreds of Jobs To Northeastern Minnesota.”
Yet for those who travel to the area, generating $11 billion each year in tourism-related costs for the state, the lure of job creation doesn’t soften the deal.
“Never before has this forest been the focus of so much mining activity,” states the anti-mining advocacy site Mining Truth. “If mines are developed, this national forest will undergo a dramatic change in both how it appears and can be used by the public.”
Mining moving forward
While the lobbying effort against mining has been profound, the proposal isn’t dead in its tracks. Instead, PolyMet is in the midst of completing an environmental review process. By Nov. 22, a 1,800-page Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) will be released for public review.
A draft environmental review previously submitted by Polymet in 2010 was rejected by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, prompting a new independent review by state and federal agencies. The EIS is being prepared by the state’s Department of Natural Resources, the National Forest Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
“The EPA appreciates the collaborative and constructive discussions we have had with the co-lead agencies since receiving the preliminary supplemental draft EIS (PSDEIS). In these discussions, we have covered all the areas where the EPA had questions or comment,” the EPA stated in a letter to agencies reviewing the latest EIS draft.
PolyMet is promoting the new report as a premature victory for its mining projects, prompting conservation agencies to jump to action, organizing protests, gathering petitions and lobbying state lawmakers.
“PolyMet has worked diligently over the past three-and-a-half years to improve the project design, and to complete the analysis and technical studies for the NorthMet Project as requested by the government agencies,” PolyMet CEO Jon Cherry said in a press release. “We can demonstrate that we can protect the environment and produce essential metals while creating hundreds of new jobs in the community.”
The PolyMet mine would create three open pits — and the size of those pits could reach up to 278 acres, according to Precious Waters. Reactive waste produced through the mining process is also a concern, as current plans call for storage in existing mine basins.
In order for nickel and copper to extracted, rock is crushed, exploiting sulfide within the rock. If that sulfide makes its way into local water systems, the risk of contamination is immense.
“The history of sulfide mining is rife with contamination. Harmful acid mine drainage is an inescapable byproduct of sulfide mining and results in miles of decimated streams and rivers,” states the National Wildlife Federation website. “The Great Lakes region must carefully protect its most precious resource, fresh water.”
Public support waning
As PolyMet moves ahead with its proposed mining plan, the public is growing increasingly skeptical of the company’s plans.
A statewide poll issued in September found that just 32 percent of Minnesotans supported opening the Boundary Waters area to mining.
“More than regional differences, these polls show the common values that unify Minnesotans,” said Paul Austin, executive director of Conservation Minnesota said in a press release. “All Minnesotans want to preserve our lakes, our rivers, and our way of life for future generations. As the details of sulfide mining proposals become clear, Minnesotans are wary of taking such long-term risks for such short-term benefits. That’s why more than 12,000 people have asked Governor Dayton to insist on getting answers to all the important questions before these mines are allowed to proceed.”
In September, a petition against mining in Northeastern Minnesota received 10,000 signatures.
PolyMet repeatedly points out that the NorthMet mine proposal is not in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, describing it instead as “175 river miles upstream from Lake Superior.”
Spotlight on PolyMet
Aside from concerns over water contamination and destruction of public forest and wetlands, environmental advocates are also wary of an international corporation doing business in their backyards.
PolyMet is considered a “junior mining company.” Its proposed Northeastern Minnesota mine would be the first for the new company.
In April, the company received a boost when a Swiss commodity trading firm, Glencore AG, pledged to invest roughly $20 million of bridge loans for the Minnesota mining project, with plans to raise an additional $60 million in new equity for the company.
The partnership between PolyMet and Glencore is nothing new, and considering Glencore deals primarily with resource-extraction operations, its involvement in the project is seen as overarching.
Glencore describes itself as “one of the “world’s largest natural resource companies.” Its CEO, which took over in 2010, is BP’s former CEO Tony Hayward, who was running the company in the midst of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, considered the largest open water oil spill.
The Deepwater Horizon explosion killed 11 people — and it took nearly 90 days before the oil spill was closed, resulting in an estimated 5 million barrels of oil seeping into the ocean. Following the disaster, Hayward and BP came under attack for lax regulations that led to the spill.
Hayward become infamous for his pleas to get his “life back” after the disaster, which is still not resolved. After leaving BP, he moved directly into his position with Glencore.
That, according to environmental advocates fighting mining in Northeastern Minnesota, isn’t too comforting.