New mining exploration 'absolutely a threat' to Minnesota's Boundary Waters: advocate

Environmentalists are calling out the Trump administration for lifting roadblocks against mining exploration near Minnesota's Boundary Waters, which they fear will lead to pollution of the area's rich wilderness.

Advocate Lukas Leaf says the 'path of pollution' from mines could reach Ontario waters

Lukas Leaf says any jobs that the mining will bring to the area are greatly outweighed by the existing jobs offered by the outdoor businesses, which rely on the Boundary Waters. (Submitted by Lukas Leaf )
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It's a million acres of protected wilderness stretching across North-Eastern Minnesota — where anyone in a canoe can truly lose themselves. But now, some environmentalists say the Boundary Waters Canoe Area is under threat.

The Trump administration decided last week to re-open a large area on the BWCA's doorstep to mining exploration, which could result in the building of a copper and nickel mine.

Activists are worried that pollution from future mining could flow into the Boundary Waters. And there's also concern that development could affect Ontario's Quetico Provincial Park, north of the U.S. border in Ontario.

Lukas Leaf is the executive director of Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters, which opposes mining in the area. 

As It Happens host Carol Off spoke to Leaf about the risks to the environment and why he believes any jobs the mining would bring to Minnesota are greatly outweighed by existing jobs created through the outdoors industry. 

Here is part of their conversation.

Mr. Leaf, at this stage, we're just talking about mineral exploration near the Boundary Waters. Why are you so concerned about what this means for that wilderness area?

The Boundary Waters are a huge economic driver for the economy up in North-Eastern Minnesota. It's also a world-class hunting and fishing destination for many folks here in Minnesota, and nationally, as well.

So, we are concerned with this type of mining moving forward in Minnesota because it has a terrible track record of pollution with sulphuric acid and other toxic heavy metals called acid mine drainage. This type of mining's track record has always had some type of pollution so we're extremely worried and discouraged by the recent announcement by the Trump administration.

Lukas Leaf is the executive director of Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters. (Submitted by Lukas Leaf)

Because of the track record, because of how important it is, these are your concerns — but do you know specifically that this exploration is a threat, specifically to this area?

Absolutely. Of the 14 mines currently operational, or done in operation, in the U.S., there has been some type of pollution —12 of them with significant pollution. Whether it's in an arid or extremely water-rich environment like we have here in up North Minnesota. The Superior National Forest holds 20 per cent of the fresh water in the entire national forest system in the United States.

But you are talking hypothetically, aren't you? Can you actually say that you know that this exploration for minerals in this area close to the Boundary Waters will be a threat to this environment?

It is absolutely a threat to the environment. And again, that goes back to the track record of this type of mining. Twin Metals, Minnesota, which is currently now able to regain its mineral leases, is owned by Antofagasta, which is a Chilean mining company with a terrible track record of pollution — not only within their own country but now currently with the ability to mine here.

Are there differences though between how Chile treats its mining and how the United States treats it?

Yes. We do have proper review of the mining and proposals. It goes through rigorous environmental studies and I think that really gets into the recent decision that happened here as well. What happened last week, is the Department of Agriculture, specifically announced by Secretary Sonny Perdue, cancelled the environmental assessment that was happening here and cut it short early.

Last week, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced that the Trump administration is lifting a roadblock to copper-nickel mining near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area of Minnesota. (Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press)

You talk about the Boundary Waters being a huge economic driver in your state, in Minnesota. Others are saying that mining itself would bring industry and industrial development, would bring jobs and work, into the region. You've been accused by many as being elitist, hypocritical, opposing mining when the area is depressed and needs the jobs. What do you say?

Yeah, absolutely. The jobs argument has been hugely polarizing here in Minnesota. Twin Metals, Minnesota, on their website it's stated that there are 650 jobs that it will be creating. Within the North Eastern Minnesotan outdoor economy, we're looking at ten times that that are jobs that would be immediately effected and or lost, if this type of mining were to go in.

It just far out weighs what Twin Metals is proposing here. And the Boundary Waters is going to provide jobs in perpetuity compared to what this type of mining will provide for jobs that may last for 15 to 20 years. Again, we are not anti-mining whatsoever. We are just looking out for the traditions, the economic values that the Boundary Waters is, for future generations.

Concerning Canada, the Boundary Waters, north of the border, become a park that's very important to a lot of Canadians — Quetico Provincial Park. Should Canadians be worried about what the mining operations might mean?

Absolutely. This is definitely a Canadian issue as well. The path of pollution that would happen from this type of mining, were it to pollute, flows directly into the border waters and into the Quetico as well. So this is absolutely a Canadian issue.

Written by Chris Harbord and John McGill. Produced by Chris Harbord. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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