Stories tagged Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness

Jul
28
2010

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!

May
08
2009

nature in our own backyard
nature in our own backyardCourtesy DigNature
The other day I was invited to take a canoe trip down the Mississippi River, where I saw all kinds of wildlife, including a prehistoric-looking heron, and lots of other birds. I also saw really cool bridges from the underside, and got an up-close look at a gigantic river barge.

The best part about it? I didn't even need to leave the city, I just rode my bike to a park in St.Paul and a few minutes later I was out on the water.

This trip was part of a new program that Wilderness Inquiry and the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area are sponsoring to get city folks like me (and you?) out on the river. It's called the Urban Wilderness Canoe Area or UWCA, and the group organizing these trips hope to take 10,000 middle and high-school students on river trips. Some will even include overnight camping in St.Paul.

Besides being a really fun trip, I was able to see (and put my hands into) the place where my drinking water comes from, and where the run-off from my city street goes to.

While the water did look and smell better than I would have imagined, I did see all kinds of disgusting trash, some of which had made its way into the branches of nearby trees and bushes. I saw fast food containers, plastic toys, grocery bags and lots of cigarette butts. It's easy to forget that this stuff all ends up somewhere, and often times in waterways like the Mississippi, which eventually end up in our oceans. Even my short river trip was a great reminder of this.

Have any Buzz readers been canoeing or hiking along the Mississippi, or camping near the city? What did you see?

Nov
21
2006

Join us to learn about the impacts of global warming on Minnesota's treasured Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

The program--"The late, great Boundary Waters forests? Addressing the risks of rapid forest decline"--is part of the 2006 Sigurd Olson lecture series, and is free and open to the public.

Featured speakers:

  • J. Drake Hamilton, science policy advisor, Fresh Energy;
  • Paul Douglas, meteorologist, WCCO-TV; and
  • Dr. Lee Frelich, director, University of Minnesota Center for Hardwood Ecology.

Monday, November 27, 2006
Science Museum of Minnesota Discovery Hall
120 West Kellogg Boulevard, Saint Paul, Minnesota

6:30 - 7:00 Pre-program special event
Guided tour of Science-on-a-Sphere, the museum's new whole-Earth visualization system

7:00 - 9:00 Main program

Sponsored by Fresh Energy, Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, and the Science Museum of Minnesota. For more information, contact J. Drake Hamilton at 651-726-7562 or hamilton @ fresh-energy.org.