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Outside Magazine profiles the BWCA in major article: "The Uncertain Future of the Boundary Waters"

May 20, 2019 08:30PM ● By Editor
From Boreal Community Media - May 20, 2019

In a lengthy and major article released today, Outside magazine writer and adventurer Stephanie Pearson writes about her life long experiences paddling in the BWCA and her personal views on the current state of affairs regarding the debate over mining in the region.  Here is a short excerpt of the article.

By Stephanie Pearson of Outside - May 20, 2019

"Designated in 1964, the Boundary Waters is the most visited wilderness area in the U.S., averaging 155,000 people per year—mainly anglers here to fish for walleye and paddlers who travel among bald eagles, wolves, coyotes, deer, lynx, moose, and, yes, black bears, while moving under their own power past dense pine forests and granite cliffs. When the sun goes down in late summer through winter, the northern lights often dance across the sky.

For centuries paddlers have plied these waters, starting with the Anishinabek and, later, the French voyageurs, pushing westward in search of beaver pelts and a passage to the Pacific Ocean. Because of its harsh climate and rugged landscape, northern Minnesota has also bred explorers like Will Steger and Paul Schurke, the co-leaders of the first unsupported dogsled journey to the North Pole, in 1986. Both men still live near Ely and use this wilderness as a jumping-off point for exploration.

“I see the Boundary Waters as the first strip of wilderness leading to the Arctic,” Steger told me when I visited him at his homestead outside Ely. In 1985, he traveled 5,000 miles from here to Barrow, Alaska, with a dogsled team. “It’s probably as dangerous north of here as any other place I’ve seen,” he said. “These are big lakes. If you capsize in cold water, you’re not going to live.”

Schurke, who owns Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge near the Boundary Waters and has led many expeditions in the Arctic and the Amazon, said, “The great thing about the Boundary Waters is that it’s wilderness on a human scale. You’re up close and personal every step of the way with the boreal forest, the pristine waters, the exquisite flora and fauna, and the endless shades of blue, green, and brown. It’s wilderness that’s accessible physically and emotionally to people of all ages.”

In September 2015, adventurers Amy and Dave Freeman embarked on a yearlong paddling, dogsledding, and camping expedition in the Boundary Waters as a way to advocate for the wilderness. “One of the best parts about the Boundary Waters is that you can plop a toddler in a canoe and take them out for a sunny July camping trip,” Dave told me. “But this place has moods. In spring and fall, the lakes are freezing and you’re totally isolated. You can challenge yourself in ways that would be like navigating the far reaches of Canada or the heart of the Amazon. There’s constantly challenging conditions, especially in the winter, when it’s 40 below zero and exposed skin starts to freeze in seconds.”

Mining has long been a part of this region, too. South and west of the Boundary Waters, iron ore and its derivative, taconite, have been heavily extracted for more than a century. Between 1888 and 1967, Ely’s five mines produced more than 86 million tons of iron ore. The amount of iron ore mined in northern Minnesota between 1892 and 2018 exceeded 5.1 billion tons, more than three-quarters of the country’s total production.

The irony isn’t lost on me that in 1883, my great-grandfather, Peter Pearson, left Sweden to start a new life in the mining and logging boomtown of Tower, 20 miles west of Ely. Peter logged until 1909, when he could afford to move his wife, Josephine, also a Swedish immigrant, and their growing family onto a homestead ten miles from town.

 The author’s father, grandparents, and other relatives on Lake Vermilion in 1942 (Courtesy Pearson Family)

My grandfather William spent his rare free time fishing and swimming with his eight siblings in Lake Vermilion, a 62-square-mile body of water that sits adjacent to what is now the Boundary Waters. My dad grew up two hours south in Duluth, and in 1963 he honeymooned with my mom on the same Lake Vermilion island where his parents took him on vacation as a boy. Mom and Dad returned from that trip the proud owners of a one-acre piece of shoreline property shaded by towering Norway pines. They built a single-room cabin that eventually grew into their year-round home. Every summer of my childhood I ran around that island, building forts, taking saunas, fishing for walleye, and learning how to flip Swedish pancakes over our outdoor stone fireplace. From our cabin, we could paddle and portage straight into the Boundary Waters. We took the abundance of fresh, clean water for granted. That line of thinking, I have come to realize, is dangerously naive.

Traditional iron-ore mines are almost depleted in northern Minnesota. But the Duluth Complex, an eyelid-shaped mineral deposit that begins southwest of Duluth and arcs 150 miles northeast through Superior National Forest and portions of the Boundary Waters, reportedly holds four billion tons of copper, nickel, platinum, palladium, silver, and gold that could be worth more than $1 trillion.

In 1978, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act banned mining within the wilderness and established a 222,000-acre protected zone along entry corridors that would further shield fish and wildlife and ensure the highest water-quality standards throughout the entire Rainy River Drainage Basin, which also encompasses nearby Voyageurs National Park. But in 1966, preceding the ban, the Bureau of Land Management had issued two 20-year federal mineral leases on 4,800 acres of Forest Service land, one directly adjacent to the Boundary Waters and the other within five miles. Twin Metals Minnesota, a subsidiary of the Chilean conglomerate Antofagasta, eventually acquired them. The leases are within the 1854 Treaty Area, lands that the Chippewa ceded to the federal government in exchange for payments and provisions, in addition to reserving the right to hunt, fish, and gather in perpetuity.

The leases have been renewed twice, in ten-year increments. Since 2005, Twin Metals has drilled more than 1.4 million feet of core samples from 700 holes in preparation for an estimated $1.6 billion underground copper, nickel, and precious-metals mine located approximately nine miles southeast of Ely. Twin Metals’ efforts stalled out during the Obama administration, after the BLM denied a third lease-renewal request in 2016, citing environmental risks. But in May 2018, the Interior Department under the Trump administration reinstated the two leases. And in December 2018, the BLM proposed to renew the leases for ten more years, pending the completion of the agency’s process, which includes reviewing 39,000 public comments in response to its environmental-assessment report. On May 15 of this year, the BLM renewed the leases

What has many concerned about mining in this area is that the Duluth Complex metals are contained in sulfide ore, which would require a vastly different extraction process than the one used by the region’s traditional iron-ore mines. When sulfide ore and its waste tailings are exposed to air and moisture, sulfuric acid is created. Water is the vehicle through which sulfuric-acid compounds can leach from mine sites and create acidic drainage, which can contaminate lakes, rivers, groundwater, and everything living in them.

“The primary difference is that the iron ore mined in Minnesota and the rest of the world is basically a sulfide mineral that has already been oxidized,” says David Chambers, a geophysicist and president of the Montana-based Center for Science in Public Participation. “When you mine nonoxidized ore for copper, nickel, lead, and zinc, the waste contains sulfide minerals, which are the primary threat for acid drainage. And that’s typically toxic to aquatic species at relatively low levels.”

Twin Metals has not yet released the plan of operation for its proposed mine. But spokesman David Ulrich says the company is creating underground mining techniques and other design considerations that will meet or exceed local, state, and federal regulations to minimize and avoid environmental impacts. Ulrich also cites that “21st-century technology allows us to do our work with remarkable precision and safety.”

While sulfide-ore mining techniques vary and continue to evolve, in the past some safety records have caused concern. A 2012 study by the nonprofit Earthworks reviewed 14 U.S. sulfide-ore copper mines—­predominately open-pit—which produced 89 percent of the country’s copper in 2010, the most recent data available from the U.S. Geological Survey. All the mines experienced pipeline spills or other accidental releases. Tailings spills occurred at nine operations, and at 13 of the 14 mines, the study says, “water collection and treatment systems have failed to control contaminated mine seepage, resulting in significant water-quality impacts.”

To read the entire original article in Outside magazine and read related reporting, follow this link to the Outside magazine website.

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