Outdoor enthusiasts associate Northeast Minnesota with the Boundary Waters, the country’s most-popular wilderness area. But to local folks it’s known as the Iron Range, so named for the ore the region has produced for generations.
This is canoe country, and it’s mining country. Those two cultures have been on a collision course for decades. Now the White House has sided with the mining industry, halting an environmental study ordered by its predecessor and fast-tracking a new, more environmentally hazardous type of mining in the region.
Together with Voyageurs National Park and Ontario’s Quetico and La Verendrye Provincial Parks, it makes up one of the largest areas of contiguous wilderness lakes and forests in North America.
Last week the Trump administration renewed two mineral leases held by Twin Metals Minnesota, a Chilean-owned company that wants to open an underground copper-nickel mine just three miles from the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW). The action is the latest step to undo existing protections of the 1.1 million-acre expanse of pristine lakes and boreal forest.
The lease renewal doesn’t just clear the way for Twin Metals to move ahead with the next phase of its mine project in the Boundary Waters watershed. The new lease requires them to accelerate the process. New “diligent development” requirements obligate Twin Metals to submit an operational plan for the mine project, obtain all necessary permits, and meet certain mine construction milestones within the 10-year term of the lease. If the company doesn’t keep pace, the leases will be terminated, according to a BLM announcement. Twin Metals says it will submit the paperwork “in the coming months.”
Mining has been a Northern Minnesota mainstay for well over a century, and the region surrounding the Boundary Waters is riddled with massive open-pit iron mines, both active and dormant. But because iron ore is not terribly acidic, those mines have not seriously impacted the water quality inside the preserve. Many canoe-trippers drink straight from Boundary Waters lakes and streams without bothering to filter.
The Twin Metals mine would be underground, but the heavy metals it’s designed to extract—copper, nickel, palladium, and others—are embedded in highly acidic sulfide ore. When that ore comes into contact with water, it creates acid mine drainage, a toxic slurry of sulfuric acid, sulfates and heavy metals such as copper, zinc, and mercury. It spreads most readily in areas of shallow groundwater with abundant lakes and streams. Areas, that is, such as the Boundary Waters.
It’s hard to imagine a landscape more vulnerable to the spread of acid mine drainage. Nearly 20 percent of the BWCAW’s total surface area is water, including more than 1,100 lakes and hundreds of miles of rivers and streams. The rest is forest and bog, most of it accessible only by canoe and portage trail. Together with Voyageurs National Park and Ontario’s Quetico and La Verendrye Provincial Parks, it makes up one of the largest areas of contiguous wilderness lakes and forests in North America.
With more than 150,000 annual visitors, it is also the most popular wilderness area in the United States. The Boundary Waters feature world-class fishing and paddling, including more than 1,200 miles of canoe and kayak routes and 237 miles of overnight hiking trails. It’s a refuge for diverse species of wildlife, from the common loon to endangered gray wolves and Canada lynx.
The proposed Twin Metals mine site lies just three miles from the wilderness boundary, near the Kiwishiwi River, part of the Rainy River watershed which flows into the Boundary Waters and its sister parks in Canada. Twin Metals says that modern mining practices will allow it to minimize the spread of acid mine drainage. Mining technology has improved, but Twin Metals’ Chilean parent company has a well-documented history of serious pollution.
Twin Metals has spent a cool $1 million since 2017 lobbying Congress and the Trump administration. Antofagosta’s owner, Andrónico Luksic, also happens to be Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner’s landlord. The Chilean mineral baron owns a $5.5 million home in Washington, D.C., which he rents to the couple for $15,000 per month, a relationship that has drawn criticism from the likes of President George W. Bush’s former ethics chief Richard Painter.
Ivanka and Jared say they weren’t aware of the mine project or Luksic’s connection to it, so we’ll just have to leave it at that. Though it is worth noting that Antofagasta has been implicated in a number of scandals in Chile, including a $10 million sweetheart loan to the daughter-in-law of the Chilean president.
The Twin Metals leases date back to 1966, just two years after the passage of the Wilderness Act, which made the Boundary Waters one of the nation’s first designated wilderness areas. The original leases predated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and for decades were grandfathered out of regulations designed to protect the environment.
It’s hard to imagine a landscape more vulnerable to the spread of acid mine drainage. Nearly 20 percent of the BWCAW’s total surface area is water, including more than 1,100 lakes and hundreds of miles of rivers and streams.
That lasted until 2014, when the Obama administration directed the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) to review the potential impact of sulfite copper mining in the Superior National Forest. The agency determined that mining could cause “serious and irreplaceable harm” to the nearby wilderness area, prompting a two-year moratorium on new mineral exploration and development. During that time the USFS and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) were to conduct an environmental impact statement (EIS) analysis to determine whether mining should be prohibited for up to 20 years on nearly a quarter-million acres of Superior National Forest land surrounding the Boundary Waters.
Given the potentially dire environmental impacts of acid mine waste seeping into America’s favorite wilderness, the Twin Metals mine seemed dead in its tracks. But in January 2018, some 20 months into the 24-month EIS study, the White House abruptly canceled it. In its place the administration ordered a less rigorous environmental assessment (EA), which was released in December 2018. It recommended the Twin Metals’ mineral leases be renewed.
According to a report by the Center for American Progress, the EA was prepared by Golder Associates Inc., the same company Twin Metals had hired in 2014 to write a technical report on the proposed mining project. The study ran all of 34 pages and was distressingly light on details.
“Analysis of all potential environmental effects—including those on water resources, cultural resources, recreation, wildlife, vegetation, and soil—were described in just seven pages. Equally concerning, the entire EA included just 10 references, and only a single study on potential acid mine drainage was cited,” Carlos Rivero Lopez and Jenny Rowland-Shea wrote in an exhaustively footnoted takedown of the Trump admin’s Boundary Waters policy.
At a Congressional hearing last month, Minnesota Rep. Betty McCollum, a Democrat who represents the city of St. Paul, asked Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to explain why the administration had canceled the EIS and thrown out the results.
“Twenty months of collecting public input, 20 months of science-based assessment, and all you released was a one-page press release?” she said, warning that by stopping the study Perdue had unleashed “a roller coaster of events that will lead to, possibly, the destruction of these pristine waters.”
Nobody in the Iron Range wants that. But a lot of folks do want the sort of jobs Twin Metals is promising: union work with benefits and good wages. The company says that once operational, its mine will directly employ 650 people in northeastern Minnesota and spin off another 1,300 jobs in other industries, from equipment suppliers to healthcare. It’s a strong argument in Northeast Minnesota, where mining goes back generations and people take pride in good honest work. And a full-time job in the mine looks pretty good compared to seasonal work running tables or wrangling canoes for tourists—especially when you consider the mine pays four times as much, according to an analysis commissioned by the industry group Mining Minnesota.
Back in 1977, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources estimated that the region holds 4.4 billion tons of ore containing copper, nickel, platinum, and related metals. Twin Metals’ own research suggests there’s far more than that. The company has drilled 1.6 million feet of core samples—that’s more than 300 miles—from the mineral-rich ground around the Boundary Waters and concluded that there is a great deal of money to be made in extracting those minerals. Twin Metals has invested more than $400 million in the project. It’s not going to walk away without a fight.
The other industry in town is the outdoors—dozens of lodges, canoe liveries, restaurants and other businesses that cater to the more than 150,000 people who visit the Boundary Waters each year. Other people come to stay. National Geographic recently named Ely as one of the world’s nine best adventure towns—one of only two U.S. cities to make the list. That draws people with the option to live anywhere, from outdoor-minded tech workers to well-heeled retirees.
Harvard Economist James Stock says this “in-migration,” together with park tourism, is a better economic bet than the boom-bust cycle of mining. In a 16-page analysis full of graphs and references to the academic literature, Stock and co-author Jacob Bradt found that without the mine, the region would gain 4,500 more jobs and up to $900 million more in personal income over the next 20 years than it would if the Twin Metals project goes forward.
The researchers ran 72 scenarios and found the no-mine option was superior in 69 of them, in many cases by a large margin. One thing they didn’t do, however, is speak to people in Ely who want those mining jobs. Reporter Reid Forgraves did just that in 2017 for a complex portrait of a region divided in the New York Times magazine.
Forgraves spent time with 29-year-old Dan Forsman, who works as a heavy equipment mechanic in a nearby iron mine and complained of condescension from environmental advocates like Becky Rom, the national campaign chair of Save the Boundary Waters. Forgraves also spoke to Rom, who took him canoeing on the South Kawishiwi River and said, “Danny Forsman drives to the mine in his truck, comes home and watches TV, and he doesn’t know this world exists.”
Stock, the Harvard economist, is one of the preeminent researchers in his field. He has no financial interest in the debate, and he makes a good argument. But his scenarios are based on attracting more visitors, and more in-migration. That is, more people from outside the Iron Range. It’s sound economics, but not a winning political strategy in Northeast Minnesota.
Indeed, the district went red in the 2018 midterms, one of only a handful of congressional districts nationwide to shift from Democratic to Republican control in that blue-wave election.
Both candidates were for the mine.