Water Report: Protecting Minnesota’s Water


This water report assesses six major threats to the Land of 10,000 Lakes, and provides policy recommendations that, if adopted, would help to ensure that all Minnesotans have access to clean water for decades to come. Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness has produced this report in partnership with the Land Stewardship Project, Save our Sky Blue Waters, WaterLegacy, Save Lake Superior, Friends of the Cloquet Valley State Forest and Duluth for Clean Water.

In the Minnesota Water Report, we assess the following threats, and propose solutions:

  • Proposed copper-sulfide mining
  • Agricultural runoff
  • Discharges from wastewater treatment facilities
  • Availability of water
  • Loss of wildlife habitat
  • Inadequate Environmental Review and Monitoring Regulations

While northeastern Minnesota is home to some of the cleanest water on earth, including the pristine Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) and Lake Superior, it is also home to a large low-grade deposit of heavy metals, known as the Duluth Complex. Foreign mining conglomerates have identified the Duluth Complex as an opportunity to profit off of Minnesota’s natural resources.

BWCAW-Withdrawal Map - showing minerals, water bodies, reservations and parklands in northeastern Minnesota.

Copper-sulfide mining, also known as non-ferrous mining, is much different from the taconite mining that provided a key part of northeastern Minnesota’s economy for over 100 years. There has never been an operational copper-sulfide mine in Minnesota and there has never been one anywhere in the world that operated without polluting.

With a track record of environmental devastation across the world, allowing this industry to operate next to Minnesota’s cleanest water would be devastating to the state’s lakes, rivers and streams and would directly undermine the state’s One Watershed, One Plan, which sets standards for clean water, water conservation and pollution mitigation. The proposed mines would remove the ability of local government entities to provide clean water to their constituents and entrust the health of Minnesota’s watersheds to the problematic parent companies of the mines at issue.

The threats from these mines are numerous. First, chemical leaks would be likely in copper-sulfide mining. A 2016 report by Earthworks studied 14 copper mines and found all 100% of those mines to have spills, while 13 of the mines (92%) faced issues with water treatment systems not adequate to handle the water contamination (see Table 1). In one of the worst examples highlighted by the report, a spill from the Morenci Mine on the San Francisco River polluted the river with 186,000 gallons of sulfuric acid.

Copper-sulfide mining requires a completely different process for extracting the valuable metals from the sulfide-bearing ore it is found in than traditional taconite mining. Once separated, the waste rock from copper-sulfide mines combines with oxygen and water to form acid mine drainage. This waste must then be contained and treated for, at least, hundreds of years in order for the water used to be considered restored to the quality it was before mining operations. Because of this, non-ferrous mining ranks as the most polluting in America for chemical releases according to the EPA.

Pollution from proposed Polymet and Twin Metals Mines shown as a brown color near the St. Louis and Rainy River watersheds 
on a map of northeast Minnesota.
Likely path of pollution from proposed Polymet and Twin Metals Mines

Further, the chemical releases from these mines would have a dire effect on human health. Copper-sulfide mining would release chemicals into Minnesota’s water including, but not limited to: “mercury air emissions, sulfate discharges, copper, nickel, manganese, iron, aluminum, and arsenic, as well as solvents and processing wastes.”

Mercury and arsenic in particular have extremely toxic impacts. Exposure to mercury through air can lead to the following conditions: tremors, emotional changes, insomnia, neuromuscular changes, headaches, disturbances in nerve responses, and poor mental function. Prolonged exposure also has the potential to affect the kidneys and lead to respiratory failure and death. Arsenic is most threatening to public health when found in contaminated water and is a highly toxic carcinogenic, causing skin cancers, lesions, bladder and lung cancers, cognitive and memory impairment, heart attack and kidney failure. The World Health Organization (WHO) considers arsenic in the top 10 chemicals of major public health concern.

It is critical that Minnesota’s environmental laws and regulations are updated to reflect the current scientific consensus around threats to our clean water. With your help, we can ensure our most precious resource is protected, and enjoyed, for this and future generations.

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