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Boreal Community Media

Opinion: Protecting Minnesota’s Greatest Treasure

Oct 18, 2019 06:49AM ● By Editor

By Isabel Teitelbaum from The Wave - October 18, 2019  

Hidden in the Midwest is more than a million acres of preserved land, full of wildlife, housing more than one thousand lakes- a landscape made up of the highest point in Minnesota, decorated with some of the oldest rock in the world, greenstone, and approximately 1,500 miles of canoe routes. This wilderness area is better known by its close friends as the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA).

One of the newest threats to this cherished area is the proposed sulfide-ore copper mining within the BWCA watershed. Potential contamination from mining would pollute any connected water flow, and just one of the four proposed mines is predicted to pollute the area for up to 500 years. If approved, these mines would pose a significant risk to the long-term preservation of the BWCA, and the implications of such an approval impact a large majority of the Midwest. 

Historically, ecosystems surrounding sulfide mines have always been affected by some form of pollution, typically caused by some kind of spill. For instance, the Ray Mine in Arizona produced pollutants that traveled 11 miles downriver. The sulfides released during mining interact with air and moisture to produce sulfuric acid and seep into nearby water sources. Extraction of sulfide from the water, once it’s been exposed, is difficult and expensive. In some cases, contamination of water by mining was so devastating that the site continued to pollute for an indefinite number of years. Contamination of drinking water poses a large threat to public health. 

The fight to protect BWCA has had support from various groups. Advocates range from college students, to local artists, to scientists, to physicians. Water pollution not only affects the wilderness, but surrounding community members and their health.

The U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management received a letter from Minnesota physicians and other allies in 2017 about the health concerns of mining. Cancer, heart disease, and neurological development are just a few of the known effects of exposure to environmental toxins from sulfide-ore mining. The physicians and allies expressed their worry that the mining waste would makes its way into humans through drinking water, fish, and other wildlife.

Bands, producers, and singers have started using their music as a platform to fundraise and advocate for the BWCA. Aaron Mader, better known as Lazerbeak, is based in Minneapolis and is working with the BWCA. Earlier in his career, he wrote lyrics inspired by the environment and has always been sympathetic towards protecting wildlife. He is one of seven artists who make up the Doomtree Collective.

While the artists of Doomtree Collective have been exploring their solo careers during a couple of years of hiatus, they came together this June for the Wild Waters concert in Duluth. “Getting to play in this state, with a list of bands and artists from the state—that always feels good,” Mader said, “Like a big celebration of the people and the community, as well as raising awareness.” Doomtree and eight other Minnesota-based artists participated in the event. The local lineup shows how deeply Minnesotans connect with the wilderness and are responding with such strong conviction. 

The event was successful in raising awareness and gaining media coverage for the cause. However, only a portion of the money raised from the concert went towards preservation efforts—a lot less than people would like to think. But there was a heightened sense of comradery for those who may have felt more distanced from the fight to protect the BWCA.

Anna Nordin, a guide at Menogyn, a camp near the BWCA specializing in canoe trips, works to break down the barriers of who has access to the outdoors and that perceived distance from the issue. She strives to make environmental programs “accessible, inclusive, and welcoming to all identities.” Nordin feels at home in the BWCA and wants to help others to feel the same.

YMCA Camp Menogyn is just outside Grand Marais and within walking distance to the BWCA. Nordin said some of the campers had never spent a night outside before Menogyn. The camp is a chance to strengthen, or create, a relationship with the environment. It’s important for people to experience all that nature has to offer.  BWCA offers an array of scenery, from lush tree lines to burn areas, displaying its diverse ecosystem. 

Agatha Pokrzywinski*, a Duluth native and Wild Water attendee, has taken a trip to the BWCA almost every summer. Pokrzywinksi sees the benefits of the mining as temporary while the damage could be permanent. “It is heartbreaking,” she said, “to think that this pristine wilderness I have had the privilege to grow up with may not exist for future generations.”

A newer and safer method of dealing with waste, dry stacking, has been proposed. This method differs from the commonly used tailings basin by adding extra levels of protection, removing water from the waste, adding it to a mixture, and putting it on a liner before covering it with vegetation. Though this is a better option, it’s not known how well this waste method would work in Minnesota’s climate. It has been used mainly in southwest climates. Metallic sulfide mining has never before been permitted in Minnesota, because it’s found to be too risky for the environment and mine workers. The majority of the current copper sulfide mines are in areas of the southwest with limited precipitation and are reasonably safe for groundwater resources—a contrast to the Midwest. The BWCA would be the test subject for dry stacking in a Midwest climate, with potentially permanent repercussions. 

As pollution continues to threaten untouched land, access will become more limited. This will make the divide in outdoor accessibility greater and allow only the fortunate and privileged few to enjoy what is left—if anything. The precious land left will most likely become an exclusive and expensive place to visit. It’s important to protect it for the health of our planet and future generations. 

To read the original article and see related reporting, follow this link to the Wake Magazine website.

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