The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Wild Public Lands Need Your Help…Again!
America's most popular and water-rich Wilderness is the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) in northern Minnesota. Its 1.1 million acres contain more than 1,000 pristine lakes and 1,200 miles of rivers and streams. The lakes, rivers, and streams of the Boundary Waters watershed are among the cleanest waters in North America.
Unfortunately, legislation just introduced into the U.S. House (H.R. 3115) poses a serious threat to wild public lands and clean water found in the St. Louis River watershed – the largest U.S. tributary to Lake Superior – and quite possibly, even the watershed of the famed Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
H.R. 3115 would require that 6,650 acres of the Superior National Forest be traded to PolyMet Mining for the construction of an open-pit copper-nickel (sulfide) mine. The PolyMet Mine would not only leave a toxic legacy that could last for decades – if not centuries – but it would pave the way for nearby proposed mines that ultimately threaten the world-renowned Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
In fact, last year the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission ran a water model and determined that PolyMet’s pollution would indeed flow into the watershed of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness!
Nowhere in the country has a sulfide mine been developed and operated without serious, long-term pollution problems. Even the 2009 draft environmental impact statement for PolyMet Mining’s proposed new mine admitted that sulfuric acid will leach from its operations for up to 2,000 years!
This risky mining scheme would set a precedent for how other mines in the Upper Great Lakes will be evaluated – including some within the watershed of the fabled 1.1 million-acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. So we must not fail to meet the challenge before us!
The 6,650 acres of public lands that PolyMet Mining wants includes thousands of acres of wetlands that have been described as an "Aquatic Resource of National Importance" by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The land also includes an ecosystem that is designated as "imperiled-vulnerable" in Minnesota, and most of the site has been rated as an area of "high biodiversity" significance by the Minnesota Biological Survey. The 6,650 acres is also designated critical habitat for the threatened Canada lynx, gray wolf, and northern long-eared bat. It also includes nesting sites for northern goshawks and great grey owls – the entire Superior National Forest contains only a handful of other nesting sites for these very rare birds.
In 2015, Wilderness Watch and over 1,600 of our members and supporters submitted comments on the Final Environmental Impact Statement. The year before, over 58,000 comments were submitted on PolyMet’s Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement, with an astounding 98% opposed to the proposal!
Despite these tens of thousands of citizen comments and detailed scientific objections filed by conservation groups, little has improved about PolyMet’s proposal. In fact, the FEIS is littered with unrealistic assumptions about capturing and treating polluted water. In addition, the possibility that PolyMet’s polluted water would flow northward into the Boundary Waters watershed has not been sufficiently addressed by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
Sadly, such massive opposition and concern hasn’t stopped the PolyMet Mine proposal from lurching forward.
And remember, PolyMet is just one of many copper-nickel sulfide mines proposed near the BWCAW. Twin Metals, the next in a long series of possible mine proposals likely to advance, dwarfs Polymet in size with its proposed massive underground and above-ground mining operation, and would be located all within the BWCAW watershed and nearly next door to the famed canoe country Wilderness. Fortunately for those who love Wilderness and wild country, the Twin Metals mine proposal was recently dealt two major setbacks.
Technically, in January 2017, the U.S. Forest Service approved the land exchange that would give 6,650 acres of the Superior National Forest to PolyMet Mining Inc. This was despite the objections of 22,000 Americans who took the time to submit comments to the U.S. Forest Service during the public comment period.
There are currently four lawsuits in federal court against the PolyMet land exchange. One lawsuit involves the Endangered Species Act (ESA), as the open-pit mine would destroy important habitat for the gray wolf and Canada lynx, both listed as threatened with extinction under the ESA.
The other three lawsuits question the valuation of the public land that would be traded to PolyMet. The court records show that if PolyMet was buying this land from a private land owner, it would be paying significantly more for it. PolyMet and the Forest Service kept the appraisal unrealistically low ($550 per acre) by telling the appraiser to ignore the potential for mining-related uses of the site and to value the site only for timber. Evidence in expert reports filed with the court shows that northern Minnesota surface lands have recently been purchased by mining companies from private landowners for an average price ranging from $1,645 to $3,885 per acre, significantly more than the "fire sale" price of $550 concocted by the USFS and PolyMet.
H.R. 3115 would essentially declare these pending lawsuits null and void and undermine the Endangered Species Act to ram through the land exchange, bringing PolyMet’s open-pit copper-nickel (sulfide) mine a few scary steps closer to reality.
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