A U.S. State Department report to US Congress and Canadian officials regarding the potential pitfalls of a proposed sulfide copper-ore mine has left detractors frustrated and bewildered.
“The State Department’s eight-paragraph response would be excellent for a grade school-level book report,” said Minnesota Congresswoman Betty McCollum, Chair, Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies. “But as a report to Congress it is an embarrassingly inadequate document. It embodies the Trump administration’s insulting disregard for science, and fails to acknowledge the need to protect Canada’s waters from toxic cross-boundary mining pollution.”
McCullum, on behalf of the House Appropriations Committee, had directed the State Department to report to both countries on a proposed sulfide copper-ore mining, which Chilean mining company Twin Metals hopes to establish on US federal land in northeastern Minnesota, adjacent to Quetico Provincial Park and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The report, which has not been made public, was to address the project with regard to hydrology, impact, mitigation, and bilateral implications of acid mine drainage polluting Quetico Provincial Park in violation of the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty.
The Treaty was established to prevent one country from polluting the other through the shared waterway “…the waters herein defined as boundary waters and waters flowing across the boundary shall not be polluted on either side to the injury of health or property on the other,” it states.
The Twin Metals project had been shelved by the Obama administration, which felt the potential environmental risk outweighed the mine’s benefits. The government at the time declined to renew Twin Metal’s leases on the property, rendering the project dead.
However, the Trump administration resurrected the project in 2017 by renewing the company’s leases. The project has been allowed to proceed into a mandatory state Environmental Impact Statement process, and a federal environmental review, which starting on December 18, 2019.
The progress of the mine has caused concern for some Canadian politicians. Thunder-Bay Rainy River MP Marcus Powlowski is waiting to see the report before he passes judgement. It’s currently being reviewed by the deputy prime-minister, he said.
Powlowski, who has spent many summers canoeing in Quetico Provincial Park, has been carefully watching proceedings unfold. However, he notes his government has adopted a watch and wait approach.
“You need to be diplomatic in your relationships,” he stressed, noting that although the Treaty is long-standing, the proposed mine is still on foreign soil.
That said, he fully expects that the Canadian government will be kept fully informed as the project progresses and may not need to interject at all.
“There is considerable opposition to the project in Minnessota,” he noted.
But that doesn’t go far enough for Fort Frances Councillor Doug Judson. He’s worked extensively throughout his law career for area First Nations, whose communities, and all communities along the Rainy River Basin, depend on for drinking water.
“While Canadian officials may choose to take a wait-and-see approach, the reality is that we are talking about a U.S. administration that very clearly doesn’t care about evidence, facts, or science. As Congresswoman McCollum’s statement very clearly indicates, we cannot rely on U.S. officials to protect Canadians’ environmental and safety interests,” said Judson.
“It is clear from the radio silence from Canadian officials that while they are engaged on the file, there are sensitive diplomatic ties at stake and they are trying to be mindful of Canada’s relationship with the United States,” he said. “However, diplomatic strategy can’t be left at odds with community safety and public awareness of risk. Our community members are right to be concerned and to have questions. So far, there has been little to no effort on the part of the federal government to engage impacted municipalities and Indigenous communities on the scope of this project and the risk to our shared watershed. We don’t need to point fingers or make insinuations at this stage, but the lack of information is disturbing and gives life to suspicion and fear.”
Rep. McCollum has been leading the charge against the controversial mine from her post on U.S. Congress. On Jan. 15, the Democratic congresswoman, who represents St. Paul Minnessota, drafted bi-partisan legislation to stop copper sulfide ore mining in the delicate Boundary waters ecosystem. It did not ban mining in other parts of the state, nor did it limit other forms of mining in the area.
The legislation must pass the Democratically led congress, before being examined by the Republican dominated Senate. Even if it can pass those phases, it still has to be approved by President Donald Trump to become law.
She’s being supported by a bi-partisan coalition in Congress, and the environmental lobby group, Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters. That group gave a presentation to Fort Frances in the summer, hosted by Coun. Judson. He was dismayed that the project was relatively unknown in the area at the August information session.
“It was shocking, that in that room of environmental, First Nation, and environmental stakeholders, most didn’t know a thing about this project and were troubled by the lack of information flow on this side of the border,” he said.
He’s hoping to invite the group back for another session in spring. He and Powlowski’s office have also invited federal officials to Fort Frances to brief area communities, but officials have yet to reply, he noted.
“The people of Fort Frances, Lac La Croix, and the surrounding First Nations and municipalities shouldn’t have to rely on the efforts of U.S. political campaigns and grassroots organizers to educate them on environmental and public policy issues that could have a serious impact on them,” said Judson.
Despite local concerns, the Twin Metals project has considerable support from Minnesota politicians and Workers’ unions, who see the development as a rich source of good paying jobs.
The proposed mine site is represented by Republican Congressman Peter Stauber. He has been a vocal supporter of the mine, and the high paying jobs it could bring. He and the mayors of nearby Ely and Babbitt resent the intrusion of Rep. McCollum and other metropolitan politicians.
“Leaders here said they are proud of our water, and the metro should mind their own troubled waters,” said a press release from Rep. Stauber’s office in opposition to Rep. McCullom’s legislation. “The mayor of Ely, Chuck Novak, said they should start a Save the Metro waters campaign, after citing closed beaches, wells, and sickness in the Twin Cities area.”
“This is truly offensive that the efforts of a Minneapolis politician are a threat to our futures here,” the release quoted from Babbitt Mayor Andrea Zupancich.
Rep. Stauber also charged that the legislation was made without northern consultation.
“I am disappointed that members of my delegation introduced a bill that directly affects the livelihood of my constituents without providing me or my office any consultation whatsoever. The communities on the Iron Range are in desperate need of economic revitalization. There needs to be quality jobs available for folks to stick around after high school,”said Rep. Stauber during debate on the bill. Union leaders were invited to testify that mining jobs provided wages of US$60,000 on average, with pensions and health benefits, compared to the average tourism wage of US$18,000 annually in the region.
“The Twin Metals project has already signed a Project Labor Agreement with the Iron Range Building Trades, promising high-wage, labour-protected jobs. Your bill would nullify this PLA, making it clear you believe my constituents are not worthy of high-wage, labour protected jobs,” Rep. Stauber testified.
Twin Metals insists the mine’s design is safe, and will prevent leaks into the watershed using advanced tailing storage methods.
Ore will be mined using conventional underground methods, including blasting and excavation. Throughout the life of the project, half of the tailings will be deposited in mined-out underground areas of the mine. The rest will be placed in an above-ground dry stack, at a separate, nearby location. The dry stack would include a liner under the tailings and a stormwater collection system to manage precipitation at the project site, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources website.
An estimated 20,000 tons of ore would be processed each day over a permitted operational life of 25 years.
But Rep. McCullom isn’t convinced. In a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s office, she expressed concern for the mine and its design.
“I have grave concerns about copper-sulfide ore mining in the Superior National Forest’s fragile ecosystem and reject that notion that a mine processing 20,000 tons of earth daily for 25 years in a fragile ecosystem can be done without poisoning our countries’ shared wilderness and water resources,” she said.
To see more about Twin Metals, visit the corporate site at www.twin-metals.com
Visit savetheboundarywaters.org, to explore environmental opposition to the Twin Metals mining project.
To follow the project through the state Environmental Impact Statement, visit the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources at http://twinmetals.mn.gov/index.html