Mining and Water Don't Mix: Acid Mine Drainage Threatens Lake Superior and Boundary Waters

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Think colossal industrial development in the Midwest - do the sparkling waters and gorgeous shoreline of Lake Superior, or pristine wilderness of the Boundary Waters, come to mind? If not, they should, given the new generation of massive metallic mines currently being slated for the Upper Midwest. These proposed mines would be among the largest in the U.S., and in some cases in the world.  And they would be located in some of the country’s most treasured and unique freshwater ecosystems. The trouble is, sulfide mining and water just don’t mix.

In early June, the Michigan Court of Appeals will hear arguments in a case over the construction of an underground mine near the shores of Lake Superior in the Yellow Dog Plains of Marquette County in the Upper Peninsula. Due to the Eagle Mine’s potential for creating acid mine drainagea highly toxic product formed when sulfides in the ore and/or overburden interact with oxygen and water – and a host of other environmental and economic concerns, the mine has generated significant controversy in the local area and beyond. In addition, as the first mine permitted by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) under the state’s revised mining law (adopted by the legislature in 2004) and the first mover among the new generation of massive metallic mines facing the region, the Eagle Mine is an important example of the health and environmental onslaught from mining currently poised to hit the Upper Midwest.

Primary among the issues in the court case is whether MDEQ properly assessed the potential for the mine to collapse. As the ore body is located directly under the headwaters of the Salmon Trout River, whose watershed contains “high quality aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems of regional significance” and which serves as the sole natural breeding ground for the Coaster Brook trout, collapse of the crown pillar would likely result in creation of acid mine drainage that would flow down the river and eventually to Lake Superior. During the permit process, an expert in geological and mining engineering from Michigan Technological University conducted an analysis of the crown pillar’s stability and concluded that it would “NOT be stable.” MDEQ’s expert consultant also raised concerns with the mining company’s analysis of pillar stability, but the agency went ahead and permitted the mine after allowing the company to supplement its application.  

The tribe, environmental groups and private landowner association bringing the appeal also are contesting the agency’s approval of blasting a sacred tribal site to create the mine portal (the agency found it was not a “place of worship” because it was not a building), as well as its failure to conduct a cumulative impact analysis, the inadequacy of the contingency plan and plans for prevention of acid mine drainage and reclamation, and shortfalls in the controls demonstration.

The Eagle Mine is only the first of many new acid mine proposals in the Upper Midwest. Michigan subsequently permitted another mine in the Upper Peninsula, while neighboring Minnesota and Wisconsin are faced with at least three major new mines as well. The rural areas of these states are not strangers to mining – but this new generation of mines is of a wholly different scale and poses a different set of potential impacts, primary among them acid mine drainage. Notably, the companies backing these mines are foreign companies based in countries like the United Kingdom, Canada and Chile and operating through U.S. subsidiaries.

Minnesota faces two large-scale proposals for acid mines. The Northmet Mine would be, unlike Eagle, a massive open pit mine, in this case within a portion of the Superior National Forest that has never been mined and located near the Embarrass and Partridge Rivers, which flow in the St. Louis River and then into Lake Superior. U.S. EPA gave the original Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the project a failing grade of Environmentally Unsatisfactory - Inadequate; it recently gave the supplemental EIS a minimally passing grade, while noting a number of areas of concern where the SEIS contained inadequate information. As a recent article describes, the sponsoring company, PolyMet Mining, has never mined a marketable ounce of ore in its 33-year life, while posting zero revenue and accruing nearly $100 million in losses.

On an even larger scale, the proposed Twin Metals Mine would have the potential to be among the world’s largest underground mines, located in close proximity to the iconic Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. As the U.S. Forest Service notes, the Boundary Waters “has changed little since the glaciers melted” and attracts over 250,000 visitors each year. Many notable public figures and private sector executives have enjoyed the Boundary Waters and held it precious over the years. Among these visitors are Jack Ford and Linda Bird Johnson, who both visited when their fathers were serving as President, and the famous explorer Sir Edmund Hillary. Charles Kuralt loved the Boundary Waters so much that he made it his #1 vacation spot and bought the local radio station. More recent visitors include Richard Anderson, CEO of Delta, who brings his family to the Boundary Waters for vacations; Senators Al Franken and Lamar Alexander, the latter of whom has come to the Boundary Waters every summer for several decades with his family “because it is quiet and clean and we like to catch and eat walleyes”; and Nicholas Pritzker, Chairman of the Board and CEO of the Hyatt Development Corporation. Local residents and business owners, among others, fear the unprecedented industrial presence of one of the world’s largest underground mines would irreparably destroy the ecosystem and local way of life that define the Boundary Waters.

As with the Eagle Mine, the Gogebic Taconite project in the Penokee Range of Wisconsin (called awe-inspiring and among “the state’s best kept secret[s]” by Backpacker Magazine) bordering on Lake Superior threatens to impact a nearby tribe, the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, along with innumerable valuable natural resources. This proposed open pit iron mine, which would be one of the world’s largest, would produce hundreds of millions of tons of waste rock containing significant amounts of sulfide that could react to form acid mine drainage. The threatened area contains 71 miles of rivers and intermittent streams that eventually empty into Lake Superior; surface and groundwater that serves as the drinking water source for six municipalities; the largest undeveloped wetlands complex in the upper Great Lakes; habitat for many threatened and endangered species; and public forest land linking the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest in northern Wisconsin to the Ottawa National Forest in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Last year, after a long battle, the state legislature adopted a rollback of the state’s mining law to ease the permitting process for this proposed mine. However, in contrast to Michigan where permits for mining activities are primarily issued by state agencies, in Wisconsin both the Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. EPA will have a more direct role in permitting due to concerns that the state’s new process fails to meet the minimum requirements of federal law.

Sadly, to date it appears that state and local agencies, as well as elected officials, have fallen short in their roles to safeguard the public health and welfare from acid mining threats. Moreover, no analysis has been conducted on the cumulative impact of these many projects on the Upper Midwest’s environment and communities. The good news, however, is that none of these mines is fully constructed and operational at this time – and there are still opportunities for decision-makers to do the right thing. Hopefully they will see that long-term costs to the region’s economy as well as environment are far too great to allow these projects to move forward. 

 Photo Credits:

Lake Superior Coast by Richie Diesterheft, available on Wikipedia Commons

Eagle Mine by Chauncey Moran - Water Keeper, Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve, Big Bay, Michigan

About the Authors

Meleah Geertsma

Senior Attorney, Midwest program

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