"What do you think about the development of copper-nickel mines next to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness?"I posed this question to four DFL candidates for Governor. In each answer, there was bobbing and weaving, hemming and hawing, "howevers" and "of courses." Trapped between the desire to reassure people like me who care deeply about Minnesota's wilderness and the knowledge that the red roads of the Iron Range were the path to a primary victory, DFL'ers tried to have it both ways.
Spruce Road is one of these byways. It departs Highway 1 a few miles from the Ely Airport and runs parallel to the South Kawishiwi River flowing toward the Boundary Waters. Over the last 50 years, it's seen a procession of prospectors seeking copper in the rocks of the Duluth Complex. Companies like American Nickel, International Nickel Company (INCO), and Amax Exploration combed the area in the 1960's and 1970's, drilling for underground ore and scraping the surface for "bulk samples." In 2010, the companies have changed to Antofagasta, Duluth Metals, Polymet, and Franconia Minerals, but their activities are similar. Unlike the 1970's, metal prices, investment capital, technology, and political support are aligning behind these mines. Minnesotans will soon face the same uncomfortable question I posed to DFL candidates, and more:
Is there any place we shouldn't mine because the environment is just too precious to damage?
If we build these mines, how will we limit the environmental damage to our most pristine wilderness?
Who can we trust to do this job?
On Friday, Tom Meersman's last story on the environment beat for the Star Tribune uncovered one of these forgotten sites. In 1974, INCO chose a spot three miles upstream of the BWCA along Spruce Road to conduct a bulk sample. They created a miniature strip mine where copper-nickel ore was extracted and tested. Ten thousand tons of waste rock from the sample was left behind, unmitigated and unmonitored for over 30 years. Acting on a tip from a local resident, Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness tested runoff from the site and independent lab results found toxic levels of heavy metals.
What INCO left behind is the same kind of ore that Antofagasta plans to extract. But the scale is incredibly different; instead of 10,000 tons of ore from one test pit, Antofagasta plans to produce 40,000 tons of ore per day. They've pledged hundreds of millions of dollars to develop this mine, while Polymet Mining seeks to develop a gigantic open-pit mine on the other end of the Duluth Complex near Hoyt Lakes.
Reaction to the discovery of this pollution has been dangerously blase. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency considers the seepage "minor," not meeting "our threshold for monitoring." The problem is that while this is a small site, it is a microcosm of the environmental risks posed by these mines. It's also a telling example of the casual attitude of the MPCA under Tim Pawlenty's leadership.
With minor exceptions, there has been tri-partisan acceptance of the notions that new technology makes these mines safe, and that environmental regulations are just nanny-state job killers. Republican Tom Emmer and Independence Party candidate Tom Horner fall all over themselves to make promises they know they cannot keep about streamlining, even eliminating environmental review of these projects. Demonstrating ignorance of the complex, vital and largely federal process, Emmer's implied that mines could open in as little as six months. The hunger for jobs, any jobs, at any price, led Horner and Emmer to pander extensively on this issue during a September debate in Duluth. While the DFL candidates at least showed discomfort at the difficult choices ahead, Emmer and Horner are getting out their pom-poms.
Regrettably, DFL'er Mark Dayton has joined in the cheerleading at times. What gives me hope is his belief that the Department of Natural Resources and the MPCA need to be aggressive in protecting water quality and the environment. Tom Emmer would eviscerate environmental regulations and slash the budget of regulatory agencies. Tom Horner may conceal his iron fist in a velvet glove of moderation, but the results would be similar.
Campaign pandering will eventually yield to governing, and whoever wins the race for Governor will confront the following truths about copper mining. First, there is potential for widespread environmental damage to the Boundary Waters from these mines. Second, the involvement of multinational mining companies like Antofagasta and high metal prices will increase the pace of development.
The next Governor and Legislature will be forced to consider what reasonable restrictions ought to be placed on mining near our most precious wilderness. That leaves only one question:
Who can we trust to do this job?Follow me on Twitter @aaronklemz
(Image Credit: Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness)