Here’s the facts about the Boundary Waters and why we need to protect it from mining
Rep. Pete Stauber held what amounted to a show trial for the Boundary Waters
Seagull Lake in the Boundary Waters. Superior National Forest is home to 20% of all fresh water in the entire national forest system. Photo by Christina MacGillivray/Minnesota Reformer.
U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber’s actions to expose America’s most popular wilderness, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, to America’s most toxic industry is bad policy and unconstitutional.
Stauber, who is chair of the Natural Resource Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, recently hosted a field hearing in Mountain Iron, Minnesota, with several Republican House members and his chosen witnesses, all of whom advocated for toxic sulfide-ore copper mining directly adjacent to and upstream from the Boundary Waters. One witness even urged mining on Lake One, within the Wilderness. None of Stauber’s witnesses spoke for the Boundary Waters or the majority of Minnesotans.
This field hearing was on the heels of Stauber’s introduction of a House Concurrent Resolution of disapproval in late April. Stauber seeks to use a provision of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) to undo the U.S. Department of the Interior’s decision to ban sulfide-ore copper mining in the watershed of the Boundary Waters. Legislative rejections were ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1983 because they bypass the president. Not surprisingly, although there have been approximately 90 large mineral withdrawals under FLPMA, no member of Congress has attempted to void one ever — until Stauber.
On January 26th, U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland signed Public Land Order 7917, which withdrew about 225,000 acres of public lands in the headwaters of the Boundary Waters from the federal mineral leasing program for 20 years. Her action was informed by diligent scientific work of resource scientists and professional land managers in the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, which considered the environmental risks of sulfide-ore copper mining on land, water and wildlife; the potential harm to Native American communities, treaty rights and resources; and climate change implications of the destruction of forest land and the vast consumption of energy by mining companies. Over the past five years, opportunities for public comment on proposed sulfide-ore copper mining near the Boundary Waters have resulted in more than 675,000 comments supporting protections for the Boundary Waters Watershed.
Stauber’s legislation to undo Haaland’s decision would open the headwaters of the Boundary Waters to sulfide-ore copper mining and put America’s most visited wilderness at risk.
Since it first proposed mining sulfide-ore metals next to the Boundary Waters, Chilean mining conglomerate Antofagasta, owner of Twin Metals Minnesota, has sought to rationalize risky mining on the edge of the BWCA. The truth is this: The only reason for mining this area is to create profit for a foreign mining company. Last year alone, Antofagasta spent more than $1 million to lobby the U.S. government for its Twin Metals project near the Boundary Waters. More recently, Twin Metals engaged former Minnesota state Sen. Tom Bakk as its lobbyist in Minnesota.
Initially, Antofagasta claimed the region needed the jobs. But after peer-reviewed economic research from Harvard University showed banning mining would result in more jobs and income in the region over a 20-year period than a Twin Metals mine, the next rationale du jour became critical minerals.
The United States has long known the Boundary Waters is an irreplaceable national treasure uniquely vulnerable to sulfide-ore mining pollution, but since the Interior secretary’s decision in January, some members of Congress persist in pushing critical minerals fiction, claiming that sulfide-ore copper mining in the watershed of the Boundary Waters is necessary for the nation’s transition to clean energy.
But the facts show otherwise: A proposed Twin Metals mine would produce an insignificant quantity of metals needed for clean energy, such as nickel and cobalt. Copper is abundant throughout the world; the United States is already an exporter.
Sulfide-ore copper mining in the headwaters of the Boundary Waters would sacrifice the Wilderness while making no meaningful contribution to U.S. demand for metals. We can (and do) work with allies like Canada, Norway and Australia to secure the critical metals we need. We can continue to increase recycling metals in our own country.
In any event, minerals from a Twin Metals mine would be irrelevant because Twin Metals proposed sending its concentrates out of the country, most likely to China, for smelting.
We don’t have to choose between clean energy and protecting the Boundary Waters. The recent Department of Interior decision balances the extremely limited mineral resources that could be extracted in the headwaters of the Boundary Waters against the value of what would be lost.
Minnesotans reject the false choice between minerals and protecting America’s most visited Wilderness. Indeed, a Star Tribune/MPR News Minnesota poll showed Minnesota voters overwhelmingly oppose new mining near the Boundary Waters.
Here are the facts about clean energy metals in a Twin Metals mine in the watershed of the Boundary Waters:
Copper. Copper is abundant throughout the world. The United States and world resources are plentiful and growing. The United States is among the top five copper producers in the world. The U.S. Geological Survey Materials Flow Analysis section assesses a low disruption potential for copper in the U.S. economy. For the foreseeable future, foreign mining companies would continue to ship metal concentrates to low cost smelters in Asia, after which metals are sold on the world market. Antofagasta’s plan for a Twin Metals mine calls for transporting metal concentrates to a port facility for shipping outside the United States. Antofagasta sends its copper-nickel concentrates from its mines in South America to China for smelting and refining.
Nickel. The United States does not have a significant amount of nickel. Its close trading partner, Canada, is a leading supplier of nickel (and other critical minerals) to the United States. Canada has more than 28 times the nickel reserves as the United States and on average its deposits are of double or higher grade than those in the United States. Canada is also eager to supply more metals to the United States. Other major trading partners for nickel include the countries of Norway, Finland, and Australia, all of which are on the Department of Defense’s Security of Supply countries.
Cobalt. A Twin Metals mine would produce a very small quantity of cobalt. Cobalt would be a by-product from smelting and refining nickel concentrates, which would be done in China. Cobalt grades in Twin Metals deposits are among the lowest of all deposits in the world. Production, even if not sent abroad, would be insufficient to dent U.S. demand. At most, a Twin Metals mine might meet 1.5% of the U.S. annual demand for cobalt (based on 2019 annual consumption). As U.S. consumption rises, this percentage would decline.
By contrast, the United States currently imports 57% of its cobalt needs from Canada, Norway, Japan and Finland, all close U.S. allies and trading partners. Australia alone has 83 deposits containing cobalt, 55 of which are of double or higher grade than the Duluth Complex deposits in the Boundary Waters watershed. For example, one of those Australian deposits alone, if mined, has enough contained cobalt to supply the United States at current demand, for more than 270 years. Another Australian deposit, the currently operating Murrin-Murrin mine, has grades five times better than the best a Twin Metals mine could offer and contains 198,000 tons of cobalt, more than 42 times what a Twin Metals mine could produce. With a Twin Metals mine, the United States would sacrifice the Boundary Waters and still need to import more than 98% of its cobalt.
The best, least expensive, and safest solution for securing battery minerals needed for America’s clean energy transition is to continue and strengthen our cooperation with longtime allies and trusted trading partners. Despite claims from Antofagasta and its allies, exploiting the headwaters of the Boundary Waters could never replace the metals we already receive from trusted trading partners like Canada, Norway, Finland and Australia.
We can also do better to recycle minerals in our own country. In fact, the United States could dramatically reduce demand for minerals by investing in a circular economy — including recycling, reuse, manufacturing improvements and substitution that would create jobs domestically while not putting places such as the Boundary Waters at risk of toxic mining.
Stauber has asserted that Haaland’s action negatively impacts taconite mining. This is false. There are no taconite mines on the federal lands withdrawn from the mining program, and the withdrawal area has no economically viable taconite deposits.
Sub: The Boundary Waters and Voyageurs National Park are uniquely vulnerable — and irreplaceable.
The waters of the Boundary Waters, the surrounding Superior National Forest, and Voyageurs National Park are interconnected — lakes, rivers, streams, wetlands, and groundwater — and the extensive interconnectedness is poorly understood, meaning that water pollution could travel undetected for years or decades or centuries.
And, the route by which pollution moves — particularly through fractured bedrock — may not be decipherable. The water chemistry of the Boundary Waters, the surrounding Superior National Forest, and Voyageurs is poorly-buffered, i.e., low in alkaline or base compounds. That means that newly introduced acid mine drainage would cause the pH of the waters to become acidic. Mine drainage — whether acidic or not — and air pollution from mines in the watershed would cause mercury contamination in fish and all who eat fish, both downstream and downwind. Acid mine drainage would cause the loss of aquatic life. Because the degraded waters would be in a vast lakeland national wilderness area, the damage could never be remediated, mitigated, or fixed.
The EPA has determined that the Duluth Complex, which underlies the watershed of the Boundary Waters, is acid-generating. It also contains very low-grade ore. Waste from mines in the Duluth Complex will be vast – roughly 99% of the ore body. Mine waste would be a source of water degradation for hundreds of years. Leachate from mines in the Boundary Waters watershed would include sulfates and heavy metals such as arsenic, copper, zinc and other toxic metals.
A 2017 report by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency describes the waters within the newly protected area as “immaculate.” The report concludes that “the majority of the waterbodies within this watershed had exceptional biological, chemical, and physical characteristics that are worthy of additional protection.”
The Boundary Waters is our nation’s premier lakeland National Wilderness Area and the most visited of all such areas. A defining characteristic is water: 24% of the Boundary Waters is water.
The recent decision to keep the headwaters of the Boundary Waters off-limits to mining is just one example of the balanced policy that the Biden administration has taken when it comes to critical minerals: Support domestic production while providing that special places, such as the Boundary Waters, remain off-limits to mining and protected from mining impacts.
We’re one step closer to preserving this important wilderness permanently – let’s keep our precious waters intact.
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