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Minnesota copper mine opponents bend Forest Service's ear

Mia Morrison, 14, of West St. Paul, Minn., tells a U.S.Forest Service panel Tuesday night, July 18, 2017, that a proposed mine near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness would be hard to clean up. Don Davis / Forum News Service1 / 2
Mia Morrison, 14, of West St. Paul, Minn., tells a U.S.Forest Service panel Tuesday night, July 18, 2017, that a proposed mine near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness would be hard to clean up. Don Davis / Forum News Service2 / 2

ST. PAUL—Mia Morrison brought her 14-year-old enthusiasm to to a public meeting dominated by people much older.

"My generation does not want to clean it up," the bubbly girl, waving her hands, told a U.S. Forest Service panel that on Tuesday night, July 18, was listening to Minnesotans, and one Wisconsinite, about whether the federal government should prevent copper-nickel mining near northeast Minnesota's Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

She spoke near the end of a two-and-a-half-hour meeting in downtown St. Paul, one of dozens who spoke against the mine proposal.

Environmentalists dominated the Forest Service meeting that brought out hundreds of people opposed to allowing Twin Metals to begin copper mining in the area.

Mining advocates announced in advance that they would boycott the St. Paul meeting, which left it open to opponents' comments. But they say they plan a strong presence at a Virginia, Minn., hearing Tuesday, July 25.

The Obama administration announced in December that it would not renew Twin Metals' copper mining leases on forest land adjoining the boundary waters. The Trump administration, which in general favors mining, has not changed the federal stance on a moratorium.

The Forest Service announced it plans to impose the moratorium on 234,000 acres. First, however, it has to hold public hearings.

Morrison said she spoke because the boundary waters area "is very important to me." That was the theme of the night, with many of the speakers saying they just returned from the northern retreat in the last few days.

Grace Christenson, another 14-year-old speaker, wrote a poem for the Forest Service, including the line: "Speak loudly for a quiet place."

"Can't this be everlasting?" she asked, adding that "like a mother's hug, the water envelopes me."

The speakers, mostly from the Twin Cities or northeastern Minnesota, concentrated on the potential pollution they fear from a copper mine. Most agreed with the Obama administration that a moratorium is needed for time to study what could happen; many said pollution would be a threat for decades or hundreds of years after the mine closes.

Amy Freeman, who splits her time between Grand Marais and Ely, urged the Forest Service to study "the hydrology of the entire region" so experts can tell if pollution could spread.

"Please, study the insects," she also urged.

Freeman went beyond others, telling the panel that potential impacts go beyond pollution and include factors such as what increased traffic in the area might do as well as the impact of increased dust.

Margaret Smith of River Falls, Wis., worried that "nobody is advocating for the animals."

Mara Macdonell, a new college graduate who lives in Ely this summer, urged studying light and noise pollution, too.

Many said they want to keep the boundary waters the way they are, a rarity in the world.

Matt Francis of Hastings said his first trip to the area came when he was 15 years old. "Thirty-five years later I went back up there for a second time with my children and nothing had changed. It was like nowhere else on Earth."

The moratorium was unveiled last winter, in the last days of the Obama administration, which also canceled mining exploration leases to Twin Metals, the Chilean-owned company that wants to build a large underground copper mine along the Kawishiwi River, southeast of Ely and on the edge of the boundary waters.

The issue centers on whether it is necessary to conduct a pre-emptive, generic study of potential mining along the edge of the boundary waters before any specific mine plan is proposed by Twin Metals or other companies. Sportsmen's and environmental groups say yes. But copper mining supporters say the traditional process is to wait until the company files for an environmental review and permits, and then let regulators decide if the specific mine would be a danger to the local environment.

Supporters say the new mine would be safe, in part because owners would use the latest technology. They also say it would bring money to northeastern Minnesota.

The arguments heard Tuesday night are similar to those presented against the proposed PolyMet copper-nickel mine near Babbitt. The mines would be in different watersheds and the two projects are not related.

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People with comments may submit them by Aug. 11 to comments-eastern-superior@fs.fed.us.

They also may testify at a 5 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Virginia, Minn., High School, hearing on Tuesday, July 25.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.