ST. PAUL, Minn. -- The Boundary Water Canoe Area, and the South Kawishiwi River that runs through parts of it, made an environmental group's list of the top 10 most endangered rivers in the nation.
The clean water watchdog group American Rivers put the BWCA at number six on its Most Endangered Rivers list not because of current conditions there, but because of the potential for future pollution from a proposed mining operation.
"There's a long track record of mines in places much, much drier than what we have in northern Minnesota that have had disastrous water pollution," Betsy Daub, policy director of Friends of the Boundary Waters, told KARE.
"And now we're talking about possibly putting these same mines in a highly water-rich environment, where surface and ground water interact quite readily."
The two groups are raising concerns about the proposed Twin Metals mine near Ely, which is still years from approval. According to Bob McFarlin, the company's vice president of government affairs, the formal environmental review process hasn't begun yet.
"The Twin Metals Minnesota project is still in its project development stage," McFarlin told KARE.
"We have a very strong foundational commitment to protecting Minnesota's environment and its natural resources, and it's recreational resources, and in particular the boundary waters canoe area."
The company hopes to mine nickel, copper, platinum, palladium and gold, what those in the industry refer to now as "strategic metals" for electronic technology.
McFarlin said the area holds the largest untapped nickel and copper deposit in the world, and has potential to create jobs that pay higher than average wages.
Opponents to the mine say that pulling sulfide rock out of the earth creates the risk of contaminating the waters near the BWCA with acids and heavy metals.
"Sulfide deep down in the earth is okay, but once you extract it and bring it to the surface it's highly reactive and when it interacts with air and water it creates sulfuric acid," Daub said.
"That acid in turn can leach out heavy metal contaminants out of the rock."
McFarlin said the federal and state agencies will have to sign off on the Twin Metals plan, and it's techniques before the mining can go forward. He said modern mining practices can minimize the impact of bringing that raw ore to the surface.
"We are in a new era of environmental regulation in this country, with modern technology," McFarlin said.
He said American Rivers is attempting to block the mine before the company has an opportunity to address those water pollution concerns.
"That's really doing a disservice to the citizens of Minnesota and especially the citizens of northern Minnesota."
Daub said efforts such as the endangered rivers list are aimed at keeping the environmental issues at the forefront as public officials and lawmakers consider policies related to mining.
"These mining plans tend to gain a lot of momentum before they're fully vetted," Daub said.
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