Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Community sharply divided over proposed mine in Minnesota canoeing haven

Residents in a small Minnesota town near the Canadian border are embroiled in a tense debate over whether to support (and help greenlight) plans for a proposed mine that would bring jobs and income, but could threaten the town's tourism industry.

Just 20 miles from the Canadian border, Ely, Minn., is a popular last stop for fishers and canoers heading to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The money local businesses make from tourists is critical to the town's economy, so some residents were concerned when Twin Metals Minnesota proposed a $1.7 billion plan to extract valuable metals and minerals from lands at or near the southern edge of the Boundary Waters. The company says that "the area south of the Boundary Waters holds one of the world's largest known reserves of copper, nickel, platinum and palladium, along with modest amounts of gold and silver," Daniel Cusick reports for Environment & Energy News. Another mine, proposed by PolyMet Mining Corp., would operate near Hoyt Lakes. Residents fear that copper-nickel mining from the sulfide-bearing rock would create acid waste runoff that could damage water and wildlife.

Map credit: Claudine Hellmuth/E&E News
Environment & Energy News map by Claudine Hellmuth
Both Twin Metals and PolyMet Mining complain that their permit applications aren't getting a fair review because of policies they say were influenced and written by environmentalists and lawmakers who don't live in northeastern Minnesota. Many residents in the area agree, expressing antipathy toward government overreach. "We are locals in a rural area being oppressed by the Twin Cities. And it has always been that way, and we're just fed up with it." Joe Baltich told Cusick. Baltich is the third-generation owner of Northwind Lodge and Red Rock Wilderness Store on Jasper Lake, 16 miles northeast of Ely. Baltich and others believe that the mining wouldn't hurt the Boundary Waters.

As it stands, in December the Minnesota Forest Service blocked the renewal of federal leases that would allow Twin Metals access to the Superior National Forest to explore mining opportunities. They also made about 234,000 acres of the forest off-limits for development for two years, and will use the time to study whether sulfide mining will hurt the area. "If the study shows unacceptable risk, the Superior Forest will be off-limits to mining for at least 20 years," Cusick reports. If the study is favorable to Twin Metals and the leases are renewed, mining would not begin until at least 2024.

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