In Minnesota, fight between mining and environment gets personal

Projects that would bring much-needed jobs could also ruin irreplaceable freshwater resources

In the fall of 2014, two opponents of mining development in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness paddled and sailed from northern Minnesota to Washington DC to call attention to the importance of protecting the cherished natural resource.
Nate Ptacek

ELY, Minn. — It’s the kind of July day that Minnesotans fantasize about in the dead of winter. Puffball clouds float in a blue sky and daisies sprout under stately pines lining Spruce Road, the main artery of an old logging network deep in the Superior National Forest about 15 miles southeast of Ely. Paul Schurke is bumping down a dirt road in a Dodge Ram pickup truck. He owns Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge with his wife, Susan, and is famous in these parts as the explorer who co-led the first dogsled expedition to the North Pole without re-supply in 1986.

The dirt track ends before it reaches the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, the roadless, motorless, cellphone-towerless 1.1-million-acre ecosystem where nearly 250,000 visitors from around the globe annually pilgrimage to paddle a connected chain of more than 1,000 pristine lakes. Every night they break camp on a forested shoreline to hear the cool northern breeze whisper through the pines and loons project their mournful calls over vast stretches of open water. Occasionally an emerald display of Northern Lights flickers in a sky entirely free of light pollution.

He hops out of the truck and hikes toward four bright red poles sticking five feet out of the ground.

“Just beyond those trees is Gabbro Lake, one of the holiest of holy walleye lakes in the Boundary Waters,” says Schurke.

Explorer and businessman Paul Schurke expresses his concerns at a January 2014 public hearing in Aurora, Minn., on a proposed precious metals mine in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.
Mark Sauer / AP

If only this were an outing to fish for walleye. Instead, Schurke is standing on a test-mine site where a dystopian scene could unfold over the next few decades. It’s where Twin Metals Minnesota, owned by the Chilean company Antofagasta, proposes to build the largest underground mine in the state’s history.

Mining has fueled this region known as the Iron Range for more than a century. Ely’s first iron-ore mine opened in 1888. But Twin Metals plans to mine copper sulfide ore and other precious metals, which has never been done in Minnesota. To mine copper sulfide in such a water-rich environment, says Schurke, would be “a worst-case-scenario nightmare.”

Schurke climbs back into his truck, turns around, and drives down Spruce Road to Voyageur Outward Bound School. Campers have been learning how to survive in the wilderness here since 1964. The smell of fresh bread wafts down to the bank of the Kawishiwi River, where a group of teens is launching a 21-day expedition into the Boundary Waters. Schurke launches another canoe and we paddle downriver.

“This is ground zero for the path of Twin Metals’ pollution,” says Schurke, “the site where acid mine drainage would seep into the Kawishiwi River, flow through Birch and White Iron Lakes, in the path of 30 resorts, lodges, and camps, then 1,200 miles through the western Boundary Waters, Voyageurs National Park, and into Canada.”

He paddles along in silence for a few minutes, the unmistakable chirp of a white-throated sparrow filling the empty spaces.  “It is heartbreaking to think that what I’m looking at could be a wasteland 10 years from now,” says Schurke as he dips his paddle into the water. “Within my lifetime, this could be a moonscape for miles.”

A geographic irony

The intensifying debate over metallic sulfide-ore mining in Minnesota boils down to an unfortunate geologic irony. The region contains the nation’s most irreplaceable freshwater resources, including Superior National Forest, which holds 20 percent of the fresh water in the U.S. National Forest system; the Boundary Waters, which are categorized by the State of Minnesota as "outstanding resource value waters”; and Lake Superior, the largest and least polluted of the Great Lakes, which holds 10 percent of the world’s fresh surface water.

 These resources drain in three directions and sit directly on top of or very near a geologic formation known as the Duluth Complex, an eyelid-shaped mineral deposit that begins southwest of Duluth  and extends in a 150-mile-long northeast arc. It reportedly holds four billion tons of copper, nickel, platinum, palladium, and gold that are worth more than one trillion dollars.

The way to get at this trillion-dollar reserve is via sulfide-ore mining, the practice of extracting metals like copper from a sulfide-ore body. When sulfide ore or its waste is exposed to air and moisture, sulfuric acid is created. Water is the vehicle by which these sulfuric acid compounds leach from the mine site and create the toxic sludge known as acid mine drainage that contaminates lakes, rivers, groundwater, and everything living in them. Depending on where the proposed mining projects sit along the Duluth Complex, they could potentially pollute more than one ecosystem linked to a major US watershed.

Tourists on the water in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Jim Brandenburg / Minden / Corbis

One doesn’t have to search hard to find copper sulfide-ore mining disasters. In August 2014, the dam of the tailings pond at British Columbia’s Imperial Metals Mount Polley Mine burst, causing 14.5 million cubic meters of contaminated slurry and water to flow into area lakes and rivers. It has been billed as the largest mining disaster in Canadian history. A year later none of the sludge, containing mercury, copper, arsenic, selenium, and other heavy metals that leached into Hazeltine Creek and on to Quesnel Lake, has been recovered from the lake bottom.

The U.S. track record isn’t any better. According to Earthworks, an environmental organization based in Washington, D.C., all 14 copper sulfide mines in the U.S. (which represented 89 percent of  U.S. copper production in 2010) have experienced pipeline spills or accidental releases of acid mine drainage. From Montana to New Mexico, there’s a sulfide-ore mine that has wreaked havoc on an ecosystem.

To further complicate matters, the Duluth Complex sits within the 1854 Ceded Territory, land historically owned by the Lake Superior Chippewa that the band turned over to the federal government in exchange for its right to hunt, fish, and harvest wild rice in perpetuity. If sulfide-ore mining is permitted in northeastern Minnesota, the Chippewa band’s wild rice harvest, not to mention dozens of species of fish and wildlife on which they subsist, will be at great risk.

The upside, pro-mining advocates say, is jobs in a region where traditional mining jobs are disappearing due to dwindling taconite reserves and saturation in worldwide iron-ore prices. But at a time when California is facing one of the most severe draughts on record and climate change continues to destabilize the planet, the risk of sulfide-ore mining seems to far outweigh the reward.

According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks 2015 report, worldwide water crisis is the number-one global concern based on its impact to society. Further, they write that “water requirements are projected to be pushed beyond sustainable water supplies by 40 percent by 2030.”

Freshwater full disclosure

In the not-too-distant future, fresh water may be the world’s most precious resource, which is why the fight in northern Minnesota isn’t about a few extreme environmentalists trying to keep a patch of pretty woods pristine at the expense of the hard-working miner. The potential for toxic acid-mine drainage into three major U.S. watersheds is a threat to the country’s diminishing water supply.

The author's family cabin when she was a child, seen at right. Her great-grandfather emigrated from Sweden to northern Minnesota. Mining was part of how he supported his family.
Courtesy Stephanie Pearson

Full disclosure: Minnesota freshwater is my lifeline. My great-grandfather emigrated from Sweden to northern Minnesota in the late 1800s. To support his wife and their nine children, he carved out a living by farming, logging, and sporadically working in the Soudan iron-ore mine, 20 miles southwest of Ely. Back then, the Norway pines were so tall that they blocked the sun. His life was hard, but my great grandfather’s love for this wilderness ran deep. He passed that love down to my father, who passed it on to me.

In the early 1960s my parents honeymooned on a lake adjacent to the Boundary Waters, 37 miles southwest of Ely, the same lake my dad had been vacationing on since he was a kid.  They found a few craggy acres thick with pines; bought the land, and built a one-room cabin they slowly expanded to accommodate a family of seven. Every summer until I started working, I swam in the cool water and built forts in the woods with my siblings. Bald eagles soared, the occasional timber wolf would sprint across the gravel road, and five-foot-long Muskie lurked underwater. Nightly thunderstorms rolled across the bay, lashing out with lightning so intense that our electricity would be dead for hours. I didn’t mind. Candlelight intensified the drama.

During summers in college, while other students were interning at law firms or cocktail waitressing in Minneapolis, I migrated north—to work as a guide in the Boundary Waters.  I led teenagers on up to 10-day trips through chains of lakes with names like Jap and Little Sag. If we were thirsty, we’d dip our cup straight into the deepest part of the lake. Not once in dozens of paddling trips, did I contract giardia. I took it for granted that this federally protected wilderness would always remain pristine. But as Paul Schurke, channeling the famous environmentalist Sigurd Olson, reminded me, “The fight for wilderness goes on forever.”

Test case for the country

Olson’s statement has lately seemed more like a curse. Since 2008 mining companies have applied for more than 100 permits to drill test mines along the Duluth Complex. Toronto-based PolyMet is closest to securing construction and operating permits. The company has never operated a mine, but has proposed a $600 million primarily copper-nickel sulfide-ore, open-pit mine on the former site of a taconite-processing plant in the town of Hoyt Lakes, about 50 miles southwest of Ely. According to PolyMet’s website, the mine would employ 360 people and pay annual estimated wages and benefits of $36 million over the 20-year life of the mine.

In this photo from Oct. 4, 2011, a core sample drilled from underneath Ely, Minn., shows minerals such as copper and nickel, that stand out against the darker rock.
Steve Karnowski / AP

PolyMet’s majority shareholder is Swiss-based Glencore Xstrata, which has invested $170 million into the project, according to the PolyMet spokesman Bruce Richardson. The world’s third-largest publicly traded mining company was one of six multinational corporations nominated for the Public Eye Lifetime Award bestowed last January at the Davos World Economic Forum to the corporation with the most egregious record of human rights violations and environmental degradation. 

In 2009 PolyMet submitted its draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to state and federal regulators. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) gave the proposal its lowest ranking: Environmentally Unsatisfactory-Inadequate. PolyMet’s revision, submitted in 2013, generated 58,000 public comments; almost six times more than any other Minnesota EIS has ever received.

“We have a long history of iron ore mining in Minnesota, but this is the first copper-nickel mine, and there’s a whole lot of interest on the side of the people who want it and the people who don’t want it,” said Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Commissioner Tom Landwehr. “At one point we had 50 people from different agencies working on the comments from this document.” 

In late June, state and federal regulators released the preliminary final EIS, a 3,100-page document, to the Environmental Protection Agency and American Indian tribes. Public comments will not be accepted until the final EIS will be released in early November. After a month-long public comment period, the DNR will issue a decision in early February, followed by the US Army Corps and US Forest Service. If all deem the environmental review process adequate, permits for PolyMet could be issued in the spring of 2016.

A prospecting rig drills holes in the bedrock near Ely, Minn., in this Oct. 4, 2011, photo.
Steve Karnowski / AP

Gov. Mark Dayton is very involved in the battle, telling reporters in early August, “This will be the most momentous, difficult, and controversial decision I’ll make as governor.”  

Environmental groups are most distressed by PolyMet’s claim that it will capture and treat 100 percent of surface water and 90 percent of groundwater leaving the site.

“The most important issue with this preliminary final draft EIS,” says Paula Maccabee, the Advocacy Director and Counsel for Duluth-based Water Legacy, “is that there are no facts. It does not contain good science. It is our stance that the current project does not comply with federal law and that means it doesn’t comply with the federal Clean Water Act.”

The Lake Superior Chippewa have conducted their own analysis of the proposed project. Nancy Schuldt, Water Projects Coordinator for the Fond Du Lac Band’s Environmental Program concluded, “there are an awful lot of predicted impacts that are predicated on fundamentally flawed modeling. That’s pretty problematic at this stage of the game.” 

Bruce Richardson, Vice President of Communications for PolyMet, disagrees. “The release of the preliminary final EIS is the expression of regulators’ confidence that the document is thorough and complete, meets the requirement of law, and can effectively inform the permitting process,” he wrote in an email.

“What the preliminary final EIS is, is advocacy for the project,” counters Maccabee. “This is an important test case for the entire country. At a grassroots level we are fighting to take back our law so that it serves the people instead of multinational corporations.”

The battlefield

There’s no better place to see the fight play out in real time than in Ely. On the shore of Shagawa Lake, Ely is the über northwoods town—the kind of place where subzero winter temperatures are taken as an opportunity to grow longer beards and wear thicker Carhartt work pants. The town borders the tall pines of Superior National Forest and is almost a stone’s throw from entry points into the Boundary Waters.

Canoe outfitters, hard-core local’s bars, tourist restaurants, and iconic northwoods companies like Steger Mukluks line the main drag, Sheridan Street. There’s a public sauna that dates back to 1915 and the brand-new Ely Folk School, created to revive dying skills like wool felting. Subarus topped by Kevlar canoes and plastered with stickers declaring “Save the Boundary Waters” whiz past signs proclaiming “We Support Mining” on residential lawns. 

Downtown Ely, Minn., is a mix of storefronts for tourists, bars for the true locals and outfitters for anyone who loves the outdoors.
Aaron Peterson / Alamy

The Twin Metals project, the mine that would most directly affect Ely and the Boundary Waters, is at least five years behind the PolyMet mine. Twin Metals’ spokesman Bob McFarlin projects that it will take at least until 2018 before the company can begin the environmental review. Twin Metals’ federal mine leases came up for review in 2013; until they are renewed, Twin Metals cannot officially propose a project.

To prevent mining companies from renewing or buying new leases, Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), introduced “The National Park and Wilderness Waters Protection Forever Act,” to Congress in April. The bill seeks to withdraw federal lands in northern Minnesota’s Rainy River Drainage Basin from the federal mineral leasing program.

It’s unlikely the bill will move forward in a GOP-controlled Congress, but the hope is to get the attention of the Obama Administration. The tactic has worked before: In 2012, the Department of the Interior banned new uranium mining claims around Grand Canyon National Park, creating a temporary one-million-acre buffer zone in which hard-rock mining is declared off-limits for 20 years.  Twin Metals isn’t deterred by the red tape. The company has opened a field office in Ely, which has rekindled a divisive undercurrent in town.

Some locals have stopped shopping at neighbor’s stores, like Piragis Northwoods Company, a local-outfitting business and modern-day general store with 18 year-round, full-time employees, a few dozen more seasonal workers, and a million-dollar payroll. Despite his successful 36-year-old business, owner Steve Piragis, who is also a lake ecologist, hasn’t been afraid to voice his opposition to the mine.

“There are people who are vocally against us and have decided they aren’t going to shop at our store,” Piragis told me.  “There’s a great irony here. If people think mining is going to save this area by providing jobs, how come it hasn’t already? They think they are owed a job and there’s a real sense of entitlement. There’s also a denial that the rules of wilderness need to be obeyed.”

Locals who are boycotting Piragis’ business are particularly nonplussed by the new educational center he helped create. Two years ago the group Northeast Minnesotans for Wilderness, whose members include Piragis, Schurke, and Becky Rom, a retired corporate attorney whose grandfather was crushed to death while working in an Ely mine, and whose father owned what was once the largest canoe outfitter in the world, started a center called Sustainable Ely. In a rambling old house on Sheridan Street, the center is staffed by knowledgeable wilderness advocates and is filled with maps, pamphlets, and wildlife photos donated by National Geographic photographer Jim Brandenburg.

Some might find it audacious that a pro-wilderness advocacy group such as Sustainable Ely would plunk itself down in a town where many houses have yard signs that proclaim "We Support Mining.''
Morgan Hart

It’s a bold move for wilderness advocates to have such an obvious presence in town. In the pre-dawn hours on the Fourth of July, four revelers spilled out of a bar and two of them trespassed on Sustainable Ely’s front yard, waking Jake Flaherty, the Northeast Minnesota Regional Organizer for the Save the Boundary Waters campaign, who lives in an upstairs apartment. Flaherty went outside to address the noise and the men got “within three inches of my face,” Flaherty said at Sustainable Ely a few days after the event. “They yelled profanities like ‘Fuck the Boundary Waters,’” adding that they threatened to break the property’s lights and drive onto the front yard. The police, who were in the area, intervened.

“That’s a testament to the level of harassment we’re experiencing and the fact that there’s bullying on the other side,” Flaherty told me. “My job is not to be a security guard.”

At The Steakhouse, a bar and restaurant directly next door to Sustainable Ely, most of the diehard locals one can find here any time day or night, are firmly in favor of mining.

“I grew up in Ely, moved away for 30 years, and moved back,” the bartender, Lynn Franks, told me. “They’ve been mining here for years. There’s plenty of fish in the lakes and things re-grow. I don’t know what the big deal is. We need jobs to keep this town going.”

Sixteen miles northeast of town is Northwind Lodge and Red Rock Wilderness Store. The owner, Joe Baltich, Jr., is one of the most outspoken pro-mining advocates, who also works in the tourism industry. He grew up in Ely and was the town’s former mayor. His property sits on the shore of Jasper, a lake bordering the Boundary Waters, on property his family has owned since 1939.

“It’s always been a hard life up here, but life has gotten a lot tougher,” Baltich said as he waited for customers behind the counter of his store, which contains more than 30,000 fishing lures.

“These are my anecdotal observations, but there are very stringent regulations here and it brings down our tourism. What we want to see is mining, tourism, and logging all get along. There’s a big concern that the mine is going to pollute the water and it’s a valid concern. But I’m watching my town crumble and I hate it. This holy land that is supposedly saving us, is killing us.” 

Back at the Sustainable Ely office, Becky Rom is prepared to dig in for a drawn-out battle. “I’ve had so much joy from this land that the call to action is non-negotiable,” she said. “It’s what one has to do. We have a great case. This is the country’s wilderness.” 

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