WASHINGTON — When it comes to controversial mining projects in Minnesota, the headlines go to PolyMet, the proposed copper-nickel mine near Hoyt Lakes that became a touchstone in last year’s elections.
But one group of Minnesotans is taking on a bigger foe — and a bigger mine — miles to the north, and they have found an ally in the state’s congressional delegation.
A group called the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters is working to convince the Obama administration, and eventually Congress, to take steps to block the proposed Twin Metals project, and indeed any precious metal mining in a vast swatch around the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
The group’s director, Becky Rom, was in Washington last month with a group of scientists and a stack of environmental studies, polling data, and economic reports meeting with administrators and members of Congress. Her message: the watershed surrounding the Boundary Waters is territory too precious to allow copper and nickel mining projects that present a set of environmental complications unique to the area.
Congress has previously protected thousands of acres of land surrounding the Boundary Waters and Voyageurs National Park from mining interests, and the Obama administration has the right to do the same on its own, at least temporarily. Rom’s goal is to convince both Congress and Obama that the land straddling the BWCA is worthy of protection, and Democratic Rep. Betty McCollum announced Tuesday that she will introduce a bill to do just that.
“Here the choices are pretty clear,” Rom said. “It’s not difficult. It really is a pretty stark choice about our future and what’s important to people.”
Twin Metals: bigger than PolyMet
As currently envisioned, Twin Metals would be a large underground mine located about seven miles southeast of Ely. The project would employ 850 people and produce up to 50,000 tons of copper and nickel ore a day. The mine could operate for up to 30 years. (PolyMet, a project much further along in the regulatory process, is smaller, and much further away from an area as environmentally sensitive as the Boundary Waters watershed.)
Like PolyMet, the Twin Metals mine would use a mining process that extracts metals by stripping them from surrounding rock. The waste rock then has to be stored offsite.
Storing the spent rock is contentious: exposed to air and water, leftover tailings could produce sulfuric acid, which Rom and others worry could leak into the Rainy River Drainage Basin.
It’s a process vastly different than iron ore mining, an industry that has defined northeastern Minnesota for generations.
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