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Wenonah and Northstar Sue Feds Over Boundary Waters Mining Company

Troy Thomas

 Darren Bush.  Paddling, portaging and camping in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Northern Minnesota.

By: Eugene Buchanan

Borrowing a page from Patagonia, which recently filed a lawsuit against President Trump as well as Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and other members of the federal government to protect Utah's Bears Ears National Monument, Wenonah Canoe recently took a similar approach to protect the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA).

On June 21, the canoe manufacturer, along with seven BWCA outfitters and organizations, fellow manufacturer Northstar Canoes and nonprofit Northeast Minnesotans for Wilderness, sued the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI), the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke to prevent mining conglomerate Twin Metals from establishing a copper sulfide mine just outside the wilderness area.

"It all started with businesses that will be affected by the mine," says Lauren Eggert of nonprofit Save the Boundary Waters, which is helping the plaintiffs orchestrate their litigation. "We're helping them tell the stories of their livelihood."

BWCA-area outfitters, Wenonah owner Mike Cichanowski told the Winona Post in a story on the lawsuit, represent "a big part of my business."

"I support jobs," he said. "I support farming, and I support mining...but I'm opposed to this mine in this place. It's very close to the headwaters, and it's sulfide mining. It just couldn't be in a worse spot."

While Wenonah Vice President Bill Kueper declined to comment further on the litigation, all the plaintiffs that are part of the suit have a vested interest in protecting the Boundary Waters, one of the most pristine canoeing destinations in the country. "The mining company talks about the jobs it will create, but what's not talked about is the jobs it will affect," says Eggert. The mine, she adds, will create about 400 jobs, but the companies who earn their livelihood from the Boundary Waters comprise more than 5,000 jobs.

The proposed copper mine site is located upstream from the Boundary Waters, at Birch Lake near Ely, Minn. The company, according to the story in the Post, is proposing to mine tens of thousands of tons of ore, which would be crushed and chemically processed to produce copper. Mine tailings would be a waste product, which can produce acid mine drainage. Other such mines — like the 2015 Gold King mine spill near Silverton, Colo., on the Animas River — have leaked acid mine drainage, causing environmental problems.

"Sooner or later you will have a break. They're not going to contain that forever," Cichanowski told the Post.

If that happens, he added, it could have long-term effects on the Boundary Waters.

Twin Metals claims the tailings won't lead to acid mine drainage because they'll be stored outside the BWCA's watershed and/or buried and cement-sealed in the mine itself.

The story asserts that the U.S. Forest Service Superior rejected the mining proposal in 2016, explaining, "Acid mine drainage is a significant environmental risk at sulfide ore mine sites, and as the Boundary Waters is a water-based ecosystem, contaminated water could have dramatic impacts to aquatic life, sport fisheries, and recreation-based communities."

The new lawsuit challenges a BLM decision to lease mining rights to Twin Metals despite of the Forest Service's decision. In May, the Post reports, under the Trump administration and Zinke, the BLM renewed the leases without the Forest Service's approval. Wenonah, Northstar, the Voyageur Outward Bound School and others claim the BLM's decision to reinstate the leases wasn't legal and that the mine would threaten their businesses.

Cichanowski first tried to the lobby the issue, to no avail. "This is a bipartisan issue," he told the Post, adding a poll found that 70 percent of Minnesota voters oppose the project. "If we can't take a stand against this, who could?" he said.

This article first appeared in Canoe and Kayak Magazine.