3 Reasons Why We Need to Protect Minnesota Wetlands From Polymet


Near the edge of the Boundary Waters and near the headwaters of the St. Louis River are thousands of acres of pristine wetlands that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has deemed an aquatic resource of national importance. These biologically diverse wetlands feed Lake Superior, play an essential part in the northern ecosystem, and may soon be destroyed.

In March of this year, the Army Corps of Engineers issued the Federal Wetland Permits for PolyMet, effectively giving this toxic sulfide mine permission to destroy 900 acres of pristine wetlands, and drain thousands of additional acres.

What’s more, scientists have warned that with PolyMet operating in this sensitive area, there would be an increased risk that methylmercury would be released into the surrounding water. This neurotoxin would directly impact people, fish and wildlife such as moose.

The Corps’ decision marked the largest permitted destruction of wetlands in Minnesota’s history.

Partridge river, near the PolyMet site.   Photo by Rob Levine.

Partridge river, near the PolyMet site. Photo by Rob Levine.

Today, Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, along with our partners Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa  Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy and Center for Biological Diversity sued. The basis of these lawsuits are that the permits issued by the Corps were in violation of the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) and breached laws governing treaties with the Fond du Lac Band.

Why is this so important?

Wetlands, which include bogs, swamps, marshes and more, are defined by the EPA as “the vital link between the land and the water. They are transition zones where the flow of water, the cycling of nutrients, and the energy of the sun meet to produce a unique ecosystem.” 

Wetlands may not be the most photographed natural feature. Instagram isn’t full of people dreamingly staring off into a bog.

Wetlands play a critical part in the overall health of an ecosystem, and an outsized role in the clean water and clean air we all rely on. There are countless reasons why we should be concerned about the loss of wetlands, but the following are three of the most crucial factors.

Storm over wetlands. Photo by Benjamin Olson

Storm over wetlands. Photo by Benjamin Olson

Wetlands are vital in the fight against climate change 

Wetlands are carbon sinks and one of the most potent ways of sequestering carbon. In fact, they hold a disproportionate amount of land-based carbon. According to a 2016 study, researchers found that wetlands in the United States store a total of 11.52 petagrams of carbon.

This is about equal to four years of US carbon emissions.

In particular, freshwater inland wetlands — including the ones in Minnesota — store nearly 10 times more carbon than tidal saltwater sites. The researchers also found that wetlands in cooler climates — such as northern Minnesota — are even more effective at storing carbon.

Lady slippers, denizens of the northern wetlands. Photo by Benjamin Olson

Lady slippers, denizens of the northern wetlands. Photo by Benjamin Olson

Wetlands act as filters for water and air 

Wetlands are sometimes called the lungs of the aquatic ecosystem.

Through algae and microorganisms and plant roots, wetlands filter out bacteria and break down organic compounds, essentially cleaning an ecosystem’s water.

In addition to sequestering greenhouse gases, the wetlands PolyMet would destroy are critical to protect and purify water entering the Partridge and Embarrass Rivers.

Wetlands provide critical habitat for iconic species 

Like coral reefs and rainforests, wetlands are a hot spot for biological diversity.

About one-third of all threatened and endangered species in the United States depend on wetlands for survival. Further, half of all endangered species list use wetlands at some time.

In Minnesota, an abundance of animals thrive in wetlands: Moose, amphibians, eagles, great blue herons, fish, bald eagles, clams, crayfish, song birds, waterfowl — the list goes on.

Mama moose and her calf. Photo by Benjamin Olson

Mama moose and her calf. Photo by Benjamin Olson

The importance of our lawsuit

Up until the Minnesota Court of Appeals stayed PolyMet’s Wastewater Permit last month, the Wetlands Permit was the last permit required under federal law and now gives Polymet, the green light to commence construction.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had worked closely with PolyMet on many changes, updates and revisions to the permits, the public has largely been kept in the dark. Lawyers for Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness struggled to receive any information on how the permit was being shaped. Often, the only way they could get any information from the Corps was through a laborious Freedom of Information Act request.

The opaque process surrounding these permits and the lack of public input is further evidence that the process is stacked in favor of PolyMet. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers conducted business in a way that showed more concern with the input from a foreign mining company than from the people of Minnesota.

The Army Corps of Engineers failed to do an adequate review under NEPA and shortcutted procedures around the public comment period when they decided to change the mitigation plans that would favor PolyMet.

They cut corners.

As recently revealed documents have shown, federal and state regulators seem to have been hellbent on permitting PolyMet.

This is another example of how our federal and state regulators are violating the law to rig the process in favor of a foreign mining conglomerate with a terrible history of environmental devastation around the world.

Help preserve Minnesota’s natural heritage

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