Last summer, nine Minnesota businesses including Wenonah Canoe and Voyageur Outward Bound filed a lawsuit alleging "irreparable harm" from the Trump administration's support of mining activity adjacent to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. With the lawsuit grinding its way through the courts, Washington continues to back a proposed sulfate ore mine and processing facility adjacent to the BWCA. Meanwhile, grassroots advocates are ratcheting up the campaign to outlaw mining in the watershed of America's most popular wilderness area in what could amount to a desperate last stand.
With approvals in place, Chile-based Antofagasta PLC, the proponent of the Twin Metals mine, plans to build a 100-acre processing facility near Birch Lake, which flows into the BWCA watershed near Ely, Minn. The process of stripping valuable copper and nickel from sulfide ore has the potential to leach toxins into the environment — a phenomenon that has degraded water quality and resulted in huge clean-up bills elsewhere in North America. For nearly a decade, Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness, the proponent of the Save the Boundary Waters campaign and a plaintiff in the lawsuit, has produced evidence demonstrating that the world's most popular canoe destination and America's most popular wilderness area is far more valuable than a mine — and not worth the risk of a nightmare scenario.
For awhile they had government support. In 2016, the U.S. Forest Service warned of "the inherent potential risk that development of a regionally untested copper-nickel sulfide ore mine within the same watershed as the BWCAW might cause serious and irreparable harm to this unique, iconic, and irreplaceable wilderness area." A moratorium on mining activities to study its potential impacts, enacted by the Obama administration, was lifted by President Trump. In fact, the President promised supporters in Minnesota that a mine "is going to happen."
A summary judgment on the lawsuit is expected later this year, says Jeremy Drucker, a senior advisor with the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters. Congress is currently examining the impacts of fast-tracking mining, including a review of Trump's decision to cancel the Forest Service's two-year study of the impact of copper mining in the BWCA watershed. "This is a decision to move the mine forward without a full environmental review," says Drucker. He explains that Twin Metals 53-year-old mineral leases pre-date current regulations and may therefore be excluded from modern environmental assessment — despite sulfide ore mining's legacy of contamination and the myriad values of the BWCA.
Drucker says the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters has been buoyed by widespread public support from a variety of outdoor enthusiasts across all political stripes. He's encouraging concerned citizens to contact their elected officials and sign a petition. So far, Drucker says the Trump administration has received over 180,000 public comments "urging them to protect this special place."
Of course, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit have an even larger stake. "My clients would be repelled by water and noise pollution and other harm to the Boundary Waters," said Steve Piragis, the co-owner of Ely-based Piragis Northwoods Company, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, in a statement. Other plaintiffs include Ely Outfitting Company, Northstar Canoe, Hungry Jack Outfitters, Sawbill Canoe Outfitters, River Point Resort and Women's Wilderness Discovery.
"This is an existential threat to the Boundary Waters," says Drucker. "These are the most-endangered public lands in the United States, and a mine is becoming closer and closer to being a reality."
April 2014 — Twin Metals announces plans to build one of the largest underground mine in the U.S. near Ely, Minn.
December 2016 — In one of his final acts, Obama's Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service denies Twin Metals request to renew its mineral leases, which had been active since 1966. Government suggests interest in a 20-year mining moratorium in the BWCA watershed.
May 2017 — After public consultation, the Trump administration launches a study of the economic and environmental impacts of mining in the BWCA watershed.
December 2017 — The Department of the Interior reverses BLM's power to approve or deny Twin Metals' mineral leases.
May 2018 — The Department of the Interior reinstates Twin Metals' mineral leases.
June 2018 — Businesses and organizations sue the Trump administration for its handling of the Twin Metals mineral leases.
September 2018 — The U.S. Forest Service cancels its study of the environmental impacts of mining in the Boundary Waters watershed; this terminates Obama's proposed 20-year mining moratorium.
December 2018 — The Bureau of Land Management issues a 10-year renewal of Twin Metals' mineral leases.
More Boundary Waters at CanoeKayak.com:
— Dave and Amy Freeman: Why the Boundary Waters matter
— Paddle to DC: Tips and dispatches from a journey to save the Boundary Waters
— Digital Feature: A family reunion in the Boundary Waters