Jul
28
2010

Mining, the Boundary Waters, and a complicated world

One of the many lakes of the Boundary Waters: It's a nice place.
One of the many lakes of the Boundary Waters: It's a nice place.Courtesy PxMa
On my way to the candy store last week, I ran into a very skinny young man with a clipboard. I mean, I didn’t really run into him—more like he called me over while I was trying to avoid eye contact. He was really skinny, though, and I thought maybe he needed help. See, I’m pretty skinny myself, so when I think someone might be too skinny, it could suggest a real problem. I thought I could at least direct him somewhere where he might buy a sandwich or something.

But, to my surprise, the young man had little to no interest in sandwiches. (I know! What?!) What he was interested in was my money, money I had been saving to spend on really important things, things like candy. The slender lad was fund-raising for an organization that’s lobbying against proposed mining in the Boundary Waters.

I felt like, “I don’t even have cable, and you want $30 a month? I’m looking out for Number 1 here, sir. Go buy yourself a sandwich.” wasn’t really an acceptable excuse for not giving away my credit card information on the sidewalk, so when I told him I’d “think about it” and ran away, what I meant was, “I’m going to think of a better excuse for next time we run into each other.” But I also promised him I’d look into the issue. (That wasn’t what he wanted, but whatevs.)

And I did look into the issue, at least a little bit.

The deal is that there’s a Minnesotan mining company partnered with a South American corporation that’s been exploring for metals near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Their test pits have revealed that there may be huge deposits of copper, nickel, gold, platinum and palladium in the area, and they want to dig it up.

And that’s cool, except that bringing up the metal-bearing ore also brings up toxic heavy metals (like lead, arsenic, and manganese), as well as lots of sulfide rock, which can release sulfuric acid into the environment. These mining byproducts can be tricky to contain anywhere, but the proposed mines are located in the watershed of the Boundary Waters. That means that any acidic or metal-contaminated water that leaks from the mines would flow into the lakes of the Boundary Waters, poisoning them.
Acid drainage from a mine: Very bad for the environment.
Acid drainage from a mine: Very bad for the environment.Courtesy SeanMack

So that’s no good. The mine owners, however, counter that the rocks in the area are very solid, and so very little water would seep through them to contaminate the watershed. They also claim that the waste rock produced would actually have very little sulfur in it, and would not produce acid pollution.

Ok, that’s good. Except mining opponents point out that environmental assessments of similar proposed mines in the area have returned grim results for the watershed, despite the companies’ claims that the mining operations wouldn’t pollute. Also, other mines in the region, like the Dunka pit, have produced so much pollution that cleanup operations have spanned decades.

Hmm. So what, then? One (i.e., me) is inclined to think that we shouldn’t be screwing around with an area as beautiful as the Boundary Waters, and that if it means mining a little less, that’s cool. So does Skinny get to dip into my precious candy fund? Maybe!

Except… how about this: maybe we really do want those metals. Probably most of us who feel particularly protective over areas like the Boundary Waters also feel like our reliance on fossil fuels is harming the environment. Burning those depleting hydrocarbons produces vast quantities of atmospheric pollutants, and to see the environmental dangers involved in just digging up the fossil fuels, we need look no further than the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. So how do we wean ourselves off of fossil fuels? With cool technology to make our vehicles more efficient, or to make larger, more powerful batteries, or to take advantage of other fuel sources.
Delicious palladium: Hydrogen storage, catalytic converters, fuel cells, capacitors, groundwater treatment... is there anything it can't do?
Delicious palladium: Hydrogen storage, catalytic converters, fuel cells, capacitors, groundwater treatment... is there anything it can't do?Courtesy Jurii

And what do we need for all of that equipment? A whole new set of natural resources which, as Minnesota Public Radio points out in their story on the mine controversy, includes copper, gold, platinum, and palladium, “metals that are used in everything from electric wires and computers to catalytic converters and rechargeable batteries.”

How might the consequences of the continued heavy use of fossil fuels eventually affect the Boundary Waters compared to mining in its watershed? Is it better to obtain these minerals in other parts of the world, so that it’s someone else’s problem? Are some environments more or less valuable than others? What if the mining takes place in a country with less-strict regulations for keeping a mine clean? And is there anything to the thought that, as fossil fuel users, we’re taking advantage of mining and drilling in other parts of the world, while we’re unwilling to let it happen in our backyard?

It’s probably not useful to divide the sides of the issue into either/or and good/bad. I want the Boundary Waters to be protected, and I’m against pollution-causing mining operations, but… it’s complicated.

Too complicated to figure out on my way to the candy store, anyway.

Any thoughts on this, folks? Negative environmental effects here… or there? Now or later? What do we really need? How should we get it? And from where? What are we willing to sacrifice for it? And, for that matter, what’s ours to sacrifice?

Complicated!

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Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

Shana's picture
Shana says:

Thank you for sussing this out (and talking to that dude when I was set to make a beeline for chocolate-covered toffee).

I think there are many reasons to turn to recycling more metals as an overall alternative to mining. It's generally more efficient, less toxic, less dangerous, and less fueling armed conflicts than mined ores.

And it's not like we have a shortage of stuff to recycle. Much of the electronics that go to "recyclers" end up leaking mercury in developing nations.

It seems to me if we've already pulled it out of the ground, we might as well make use of it before we go digging for more.

posted on Wed, 07/28/2010 - 2:08pm

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