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Learn how changes to the Clean Water Act could hurt your region before it’s too late

Apr 14, 2019 08:25AM ● By Editor
Photo:  U.S. Forest Service

By Kaitlin Sullivan of Popular Science -  April 12, 2019

Minnesota: Copper and nickel mining in Superior National Forest

Forget the license plate stat—Minnesota has almost 12,000 lakes, including Lake Superior, which has a larger surface area than any other freshwater lake in the world, and Lake Itasca, the source of the Mississippi River. Water fuels recreation, industry, and pride for Minnesotans, but 40 percent of the state’s rivers and lakes are listed as impaired, meaning they don’t meet basic quality standards for bacteria or nutrient content.

Minnesota’s wetlands are in trouble too. Just under 11 million acres of marshland remain in the state, which once supported nearly 19 million. Wetlands trap the agricultural runoff that threatens drinking water in a state where 54 percent of the terrain is farmland.

While nitrogen is less of a concern along the state’s Mesabi Iron Range, the heavily industrialized area spews methane, lead, and acid. Minnesota mines account for 75 percent of U.S. iron-ore production. Over the past 30 years, all of it has been scraped, blasted, and drilled from the Mesabi. Hardrock mining is the single largest source of toxic waste in the country. Water-rich areas like Minnesota create more opportunities for mining waste to make its way into fisheries, wetlands, and faucets. But recently, this hasn’t been reason enough to convince state officials to shift away from mineral extraction.

Superior National Forest, a cluster of boreal woodland that covers the Mesabi Iron Range, boasts nearly 2,000 lakes and 1,300 miles of major streams that support cold-water fisheries. It also houses one of the largest undeveloped copper and nickel deposits in the world, and two companies are getting closer to tapping it. Excavation would simultaneously create jobs and put both the Lake Superior watershed and Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA) at risk. Copper-nickel mining produces acidic sulfide waste when exposed to air. Acid-mining waste is so corrosive to the surrounding environment that the EPA says extraction “should be avoided.” Or it used to say that, anyway.

In 2017, the Trump Administration overturned an Obama-era moratorium that temporarily halted new mines in the area. This meant game-on for mining companies. In March, the Army Corps of Engineers greenlighted PolyMet Mining Corporation’s NorthMet project slated for an area in the St. Louis River watershed where part of the land was previously an iron-ore processing plant. Meanwhile, Twin Metals Minnesota, a subsidiary of a Chilean mining giant, wants permission to construct an underground mine on untouched land along the South Kawishiwi River, at the edge of the BWCA.

The river itself would remain protected under the new Clean Water Act, but many of the ephemeral streams and wetlands surrounding it would not, meaning a spill could easily trickle into the more than 1,000 lakes and streams of the BWCA.

More water, more reasons to file a comment.

Michigan and Wisconsin: Helping northern peatlands capture air pollution

When it comes to fighting climate change, northern peatlands punch well above their weight. Most of these bogs formed when ancient lakes filled up with dead plant matter like leaves to make nutrient-dense marshes. Submerged conditions didn’t provide enough oxygen for organic matter to decay, leaving behind pieces of dead plants mixed with infertile soil. Presto: peatland.

These bogs cover stretches of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Wisconsin, Alaska, and Minnesota, and are technically a type of wetland. Their peatiness gives them carbon-trapping power: A study of one Great Lakes region swath revealed that although they covered just 13 percent of the land, peatlands accounted for half of all carbon storage in the area, which also included forest. But it’s difficult to determine just how much peatland covers Earth’s surface. Thanks to satellite and thermal imagery, scientists have a better idea of how many wetlands contain peat, but not the amount each bog holds––those numbers are still largely based on estimates. That’s because the depth of organic matter varies throughout a single system, so taking measurements is extremely time-consuming.

But we do know that peatlands are great at pulling carbon from the air and storing it in the ground, where it doesn’t contribute to climate change. And while some of these ecosystems are clearly connected to bodies of water like the Great Lakes, many connections remain unclear and are hard to study. If scientists can’t find a surface connection linking a peatland to flowing water, it’s considered an isolated wetland, and therefore unprotected, under the new definition of WOTUS.

To see how changes to the Clean Water Act may impact every region of the United States, follow this link to the Popular Science website.

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