Counterpoint: Prove It First law is not enough to protect the Boundary Waters | Opinion

November 12, 2021 7:00 am
A canoe on the Kawishiwi River in the Boundary Waters

A canoe on the Kawishiwi River in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

A recent commentary in the Reformer (“Biden’s move to protect the Boundary Waters is great, but we need stronger laws“) proposes an approach that is inadequate to attain permanent protection for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Voyageurs National Park. The “Prove It First” legislation espoused therein will not ensure that these magnificent wild public lands will remain unharmed by pollution from sulfide-ore copper mining.

The Biden administration’s Oct. 20 announcement that it is beginning the mineral withdrawal process on federal lands in the watershed of the Boundary Waters is great news for Minnesota and the nation. It is a major step toward eliminating the sulfide-ore mining threat to America’s most visited wilderness and to its neighbor downstream, Minnesota’s only national park. The ecological and economic analyses that are the key components of this process can lead to a decision by the Secretary of the Interior to ban sulfide-ore mining in the watershed for 20 years.

This process looks not at whether “safe mining” — that is, an approach like Prove It First (PIF) — is appropriate next to the Boundary Waters, but whether ANY sulfide-ore mining should be permitted there.

The “clean for 10 years” approach of PIF does not provide the guarantee that the Boundary Waters and Voyageurs deserve. Mining pollution (sulfuric acid, sulfate, heavy metals, unrecovered processing chemicals and other toxic pollutants) may not be discovered until many years or even decades after it commences. It is nearly impossible to stop mining pollution once it has begun.

Moreover, no technology in existence or on the horizon can eliminate the pollution and other damage that sulfide-ore copper mining would cause if it were allowed to occur in the Boundary Waters watershed. Thus, “safe mining” provisions like PIF should not be considered a savior for places where risk of pollution is unacceptable. Only a permanent ban will protect the Boundary Waters and Voyageurs. Such a ban can be enacted by Congress for federal lands and minerals in the Boundary Waters watershed. The state can join in permanently protecting the Boundary Waters by amending its mining rules to ban sulfide-ore mining everywhere in the watershed.

The next steps on the path to permanent protection are clear. They do not involve asking the mining industry to prove anything.

First, we must pass federal legislation to protect the Boundary Waters and Voyageurs from sulfide-ore mining on federal lands in the Boundary Waters watershed. U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum’s bill, HR 2794, would achieve this goal.

Second, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources must revise its “non-ferrous” mining rules to prohibit siting of sulfide-ore mines in the Boundary Waters watershed. As a result of a lawsuit by Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness, the DNR has begun proceedings to consider whether the existing rules are inadequate to protect the wilderness and its watershed from pollution and other harm caused by sulfide-ore copper mining.

Finally, the Minnesota Legislature must act to permanently protect the Boundary Waters and Voyageurs from sulfide-ore mining on state lands by passing HF 840 and SF 763. These bills are the Minnesota counterparts to McCollum’s bill in Congress.

The Biden administration’s official notice announcing the mineral withdrawal reflects an understanding of the enormous value of the Boundary Waters; it states that “the purpose of the proposed withdrawal is to advance a comprehensive approach to protect and preserve the fragile and vital social and natural resources, ecological integrity, and wilderness values” in the Boundary Waters and its watershed, “which are threatened by potential future sulfide mining.”

The notice recognizes the importance of the watershed to Native people; a stated purpose of the proposed withdrawal is “to protect the health, traditional cultural values, and subsistence-based lifestyle of the Tribes, which rely on resources in the region such as wild rice that are particularly susceptible to adverse impacts associated with mining.”

Minnesotans should unite to support the Biden administration’s mineral withdrawal process by submitting public comments during the federal public comment period that runs through Jan. 19. Minnesotans should also submit public comments to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources during its 30-day public comment period about the state’s rules regarding where it is appropriate to allow copper mining. The state comment period began on Nov. 9 and ends on Dec. 8. Finally, Minnesotans should rally behind McCollum’s permanent protection bill in Congress and its counterparts in the state Legislature.

The Biden administration’s mineral withdrawal announcement is a beacon lighting the path to permanent protection. If we are smart and strategic about our next steps, we will be successful in protecting these priceless expanses of woods and water for our children and our children’s children.

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