While the U.S. House voted late last month to end a two-year study of a proposed mineral withdrawal in the Superior National Forest, the study is likely to continue— and that’s a good thing.
When it comes to public policy, more information is almost always better, and that’s why a study of the potential costs, benefits, and risks of copper-nickel mining within the watershed of the 1.1 million-acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is worthwhile. The fact that the federal government is willing to foot the bill for the study makes it a no-brainer.
Why this study has caused such an uproar with supporters of the Twin Metals mine is something of a mystery. Even under the most optimistic scenario, the Twin Metals mine is decades away. Taking a couple years to see whether locating a vast sulfide mine on the edge of the nation’s only large, water-based wilderness, is basic due diligence. There are both environmental and economic questions that should be answered, and there is actual science with which federal officials should acquaint themselves before making a decision whether this is an acceptable location for a mine.
Those who complain that the delay is preventing Twin Metals from engaging in mineral exploration of the area in question are being disingenuous. As company officials are eager to point out, they have spent $400 million developing their proposal to date, the vast majority on mineral exploration. They had already largely ended their drilling program, at least for now. In the end, the mineral potential of the area is already well known.
The question is, should the minerals be mined given current technology? Supporters say that modern mining techniques will protect the water, but studies suggest that’s far from certain.
Sulfide mines are safer in arid regions, because they generate less acid runoff, which is produced as air and water interact with sulfur compounds in the waste rock. Were a future Twin Metals mine to generate acid mine drainage, as is highly likely according to the available science, the potential damage to some of the most pristine water in the country could be devastating. The surrounding geology is complex, which means both ground and surface water would be at risk. This is, without a doubt, one of the worst locations for a sulfide mine in the U.S., if not the world.
And there are very real economic questions that should be examined by independent analysts. Those who calculate only the economic pluses of sulfide mining fail to acknowledge the potential costs to a growing and sustainable local economy in the Ely area built on the edge-of-the-wilderness lifestyle. Those who dismiss this amenity-based economic activity as low-paying “tourism” should inform themselves of the economic reality. Many of the new residents being attracted to our area bring higher incomes along with them than most miners, and those incomes fuel local spending and entrepreneurial vitality. A sulfide mine could well stop this economic activity in its tracks.
Better to get the answers before we commit to a decision one way or another on this project.
We know that a green light from the feds will spark decades of bitter divide within the Ely area, which will undoubtedly harm the local economy and discourage investment in the amenity-based economy. We know that even with federal approval, the Twin Metals project is still highly speculative and may never be financially viable. Ely could well engage in decades of bloodletting for no purpose at all.
Who would want to wage such a fight if, in the end, the environmental risks and the economic downsides are too significant to justify it? Better, at least, to understand up front what the fight is really about.