Conservation Groups Appeal PolyMet Permits, State Mining Rules

ST. PAUL, MINNESOTA – Conservation and clean water groups today appealed state permits issued for the PolyMet open-pit sulfide mine proposal in northern Minnesota because they give PolyMet a “blank check to pollute.” The groups are challenging permits issued by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources allowing PolyMet to operate the 528 acre copper-nickel mine and appropriate six billion gallons of water per year. In addition to the permit appeals, a separate filing asks the Minnesota Court of Appeals to overturn Minnesota’s non-ferrous mining rules, saying they are too vague to be adequately enforced by courts and regulatory agencies.

“The courts must hold the DNR accountable to the law or PolyMet’s permits will be a blank check, paid for by the clean water, health, and pocketbooks of Minnesotans,” stated Kathryn Hoffman, chief executive officer of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy.

The department ignored tens of thousands of Minnesotans who asked it to protect people and the environment from PolyMet’s proposed mine, and instead issued “permission slips.” The permits for PolyMet’s proposed mine do not protect people downstream from the pollution the mine would create. The department arbitrarily rejected less risky alternatives for managing mine waste. The permits allow PolyMet to threaten water downstream for hundreds of years after mining ends, fail to address concerns of engineers who fear the mine’s proposed waste dam is dangerous, and fail to protect Minnesota taxpayers from being stuck with up to $1 billion in cleanup costs.

“Taxpayers fund Minnesota DNR believing the agency will responsibly manage our natural resources,” said Chris Knopf, executive director of Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness. “With PolyMet, they put mining interests first and gave judicial review, popular opinion, and environmental considerations the back seat.”

The state permits also fail define how long PolyMet will be allowed to mine or describe PolyMet’s exact mining and closure plans. Minnesota rules require final design plans to be submitted before permits are issued, but the state agency’s permits allow PolyMet to develop the open-pit mine and submit plans for closure later. The permits do not establish any standards for the approval of these future plans and the public will not be able to comment on them.

“There is a myth in Minnesota that we have tough regulators. Just the opposite,” stated Paula Maccabee, advocacy director and counsel for WaterLegacy. “The DNR has granted PolyMet a permit to mine admitting that its ‘design and operational details’ are not ‘firmly in place.’ At the very least, with Minnesota’s first proposed sulfide mine, we should demand that no permits be issued unless and until PolyMet shows us – and an unbiased administrative judge –  that they know what they’re doing.”

The appeals also challenge the state agency’s decision to deny requests for a contested case hearing. The hearing would allow the case to be reviewed by a neutral administrative law judge, which is common for large and complex projects. The groups argue that DNR was required to grant a contested case hearing before it issued the permits.  

“With over 1300 signatures and a majority of its elected officials, Duluthians openly requested a contested case hearing on this permit” said JT Haines, an attorney and organizer with Duluth for Clean Water. “That hearing should have been ordered. The process fails all the time with sulfide mining, and we don’t want to be the next example of communities harmed by downstream pollution.”

“It’s reckless for the state to allow an open-pit copper mine at the precious headwaters of Lake Superior,” said Marc Fink, a Duluth attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity. “State officials are abdicating their responsibility to protect public health and the environment. They’re moving forward with unproven, incomplete mine plans even though they know PolyMet would destroy thousands of acres of wetlands and require water treatment for generations to come.”

Today’s appeals are in addition to separate requests the groups made in November to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. The groups have asked those agencies to suspend all permits for PolyMet until the Minnesota Court of Appeals rules on whether the DNR should prepare an environmental impact statement for larger versions of the proposed mine that PolyMet has described to their investors.

The groups appealing the permits are Center for Biological Diversity, Duluth for Clean Water, Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, Friends of the Cloquet Valley State Forest, Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, Save Our Sky Blue Waters, and WaterLegacy. They are represented by attorneys from Maslon LLP, Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, and WaterLegacy.

Thank you to everyone who entered the 2018 Boundary Waters Photo Contest! We had hundreds of fantastic pictures to look through and picking the best ones in each of the categories was like hauling a 18-foot aluminum canoe over a 400-rod portage: Very difficult.

If you want another chance at winning or forgot to enter, remember, it’s not to early to start snapping pictures for next year’s photo contest!

A hearty thank you to all who attended our Annual Gathering on Friday, September 28.

And if you were not able to make it, thank you for all your support.

As both a toast to the wilderness and a celebration the 40thanniversary of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act, the evening was a reminder that the future of our public lands, and of those lakes we love so much, depends on individuals like yourself.

The dinner began with reading a welcoming letter from President Jimmy Carter, who signed the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act in 1978. Following this was a video greeting from Vice President Walter Mondale.

Truly, it was an honor to hear from these champions of wilderness.

At the dinner, Chris Knopf, the executive director of Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, outlined our vision of a protected wilderness, open to people from all social and economic background, with strong, economically healthy communities at the gateway.  

In addition to this vision, we were honored to hear Congresswoman Betty McCollum give an inspiring speech about what a rare and unique treasure the Boundary Waters is, and how the threat to these waters needs to be a national concern.

The group, Women on Wheels for Wild Lands, spoke about their journey, and their advocacy work, at the Annual Gathering

From the group of young women who spoke about their adventures biking across the United States to advocate for public lands, to honoring Don Fraser, who was instrumental in making the Boundary Waters a federally protected Wilderness Area, it was an inspiring evening and a reminder that the current health of our wilderness and its future, depends on people like you.

Once again, thank you!


In the coming century, no resource will be as valuable as clean water. The 2,000 lakes of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, with their abundant clean water and critical aquatic habitat, become more precious every year.

However, as the climate warms and changes, precipitation patterns and other parts of the water cycle are shifting. The lakes of the Boundary Waters are becoming more endangered as extractive and polluting industries target the region.

Current Water Conditions

Ninety-two percent of lakes in northeastern Minnesota meet water quality standards for aquatic recreation — suitable

Excerpt from State of the Boundary Waters Report. Click here to read the entire thing!

for fishing and swimming. The high number of healthy waters is largely due to the region’s abundant wetlands and forest, which slow and filter runoff and erosion.

The waters of the BWCAW are some of the cleanest and most beloved in the nation. Every lake, stream, and wetland in the wilderness is designated by the state of Minnesota as “Outstanding Resource Value Waters.”

In one study of Boundary Waters lakes which used satellite imagery and analysis to estimate water clarity, 100 percent were found to fully support recreation like swimming. The sub-watersheds of the Kawishiwi River located entirely or mostly within the wilderness are all “excellent, relatively stable, and reflective of natural watershed conditions.”

Most of the lakes in the BWCAW have low or intermediate levels of living matter in the water, due to the climate, geology and forested landscape of the wilderness. This makes them ideal for swimming and drinking, as well as good habitat for certain fish species, including lake trout. They are often stained red-brown with tannins, dissolved peat, from wetlands in the headwaters of lakes and rivers.

The Threats from Copper Mines

In 2013, the Kawishiwi River, which flows out of the Boundary Waters near Gabbro Lake and re-enters at Fall Lake, was named one of the 10 Most Endangered Rivers in America. The designation was due to the Twin Metals mine proposal, which would be located next to and even under the river only a few miles upstream from the wilderness.

The Boundary Waters remains one of the most threatened water systems in the U.S.

Extracting copper and nickel from sulfide ore releases an acidic byproduct that would damage this pristine water.

The mix of acidic water laden with toxic metals that runs off waste rock and other parts of the mine is called Acid Mine Drainage. This substance can kill fish and other aquatic life, leaving lakes and rivers dead for years.

The Threat Posed by Mercury

Almost all areas of northeastern Minnesota have lakes with average mercury concentrations in game fish at or above safe levels. This includes many lakes in the BWCAW. The lakes have “consistently high [total mercury] concentrations and many have high [methylmercury] concentrations.”

Two conditions in the region cause mercury to easily contaminate the ecosystem:

  1. Forests capture atmospheric mercury in plant leaves, which fall to the ground and are carried into water systems.
  2. Certain bacteria in the region’s peatlands convert the metal from a non-toxic form into its dangerous form, methylmercury, which works its way through the food web into fish and other animals.

The Effects Mercury Has on You

Methylmercury is a problem not just for wildlife but also for humans. It can harm the central nervous system, causing poor motor skills, dulled senses, and in severe cases, irreversible brain damage.

Mercury is particularly harmful to developing fetuses and infants, with effects occurring in babies at exposure levels five to ten times lower than that of adults. In the Lake Superior basin, eight percent of Minnesota’s infants surveyed were born with high levels of mercury, above the regional average.

Coal-fired power plants are the largest source of mercury emissions in the Great Lakes region, followed by metals

Photo courtesy of Benjamin Olson

mining and processing and fossil fuel combustion. Approximately 100 tons of mercury are emitted from human activities each year in the United States. In Minnesota, emissions have been reduced by more than half since the state and utilities began efforts to cut mercury in the mid-1990s, when Minnesota released 1,850 pounds into the atmosphere. It has already reached 870 pounds per year, and is headed for for less than 200 pounds.

Much of the mercury deposited in the Boundary Waters comes from sources far from Minnesota – carried thousands of miles on the wind, falling to earth and into wilderness waters. About 90 percent of the mercury deposited in Minnesota originates from other states and countries.

Mercury contamination has proven to be a persistent problem. While the Great Lakes states and Ontario have made progress in reducing their mercury emissions, as much as 50 percent since 1990, mercury contamination in our lakes, streams, and fish remain high.

Visitor impacts

The 150,000 people who visit the wilderness each year can add up to a lot of people rinsing themselves, cleaning dishes, shampooing, and using latrines near the water. Without care, users can be a source of significant water pollution.

Wilderness visitors can help protect canoe country’s waters by following the rules and practicing Leave No Trace camping principles. These practices include taking steps to avoid water contamination, such as:

  • Not soaping and rinsing in lakes
  • Always using designated latrines
  • Not washing dishes in lakes
  • Don’t go in water when you’re covered in bug spray, sunscreen, soap, and don’t spit your toothpaste in the water.
  • Consider natural cleaning and hygiene products.
  • Use the latrines for their intended purpose.
  • Don’t burn trash, which releases dioxins into water.

One of the most common ways humans contaminate wilderness waters is with bacteria.

Fecal coliform concentrations (E. coli) in waters around Boundary Waters campsites are often significantly elevated, due to shallow topsoils and limited latrine locations, bathing or defecating in water, and overuse. E. coli infections include stomach cramps, diarrhea, and vomiting. Children are more likely than adults to develop symptoms.

Human’s visiting the wilderness do not seem to be adding to the amount of nutrients and the increased algae in the lakes, and other resulting impacts to water quality.

A recent study by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, U.S. Forest Service, and Vermilion Community College of three high-use wilderness lakes: Alton, Ensign, and Caribou found all three met water quality standards for clarity, nutrients, and algae. There was no significant difference in water quality between the deep and shallow locations.

A Fragile Balance

The rocky lakes of the border country are sometimes seen as “sterile.” They are actually home to many plants and animals, but naturally have some of the least amount of organic activity in the world.

This “low productivity” is a result of their northern latitudes, cold and deep waters, the basalt bedrock, and the surrounding landscape of unbroken forests, wetlands, and more lakes and rivers. There are generally low amounts of nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, and thus fewer algae and zooplankton, and more competition between fish for limited food sources.

Changes to the wilderness — whether from temperature changes, human activities, alterations to fire patterns or precipitation — can disrupt how these low production lakes function. Fires can create erosion and increased runoff in rain storms, resulting in a flow of soil and nutrients into the lakes. Warm weather and changes in wind patterns, combined with lake depth and fetch, can interfere with lake functions.

How can you help?

Wilderness travelers have an important role to play in monitoring the BWCAW’s water quality.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is looking for help from citizens to collect water quality data so the state can better track changes to water quality — and address negative impacts. To join the effort, contact the Citizen Lakes Monitoring Program Coordinator at 800-657-3864 or via email at

On the 40th anniversary of the creation of the BWCAW — and as part of our longtime leadership in protecting, preserving and restoring this national treasure — the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness has compiled a State of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness report. Examining the current situation in the Boundary Waters, it provides an overview of the ecological health, human experiences and emerging threats.

Want more?

Read the entire report here.


On June 25, Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia to protect the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness from the sulfide-ore mine proposed by Twin Metals, a subsidiary of the Chilean-owned mining conglomerate Antofagasta.

Twin Metals’ sulfide-ore mine is a direct threat to the outdoor economy of northern Minnesota, which is heavily dependent on tourism and recreation. Clean water is a main reason the Boundary Waters has been protected by the federal government as a wilderness area for the past 100 years. With over 150,000 annual visitors, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is the most visited wilderness area in the country.

In May 2018, the federal government took action to reinstate Twin Metals’ expired mineral leases on federal lands near the Boundary Waters. This move reversed a previous action cancelling Twin Metals’ leases, originally granted in the 1960s. Twin Metals was not entitled to an automatic renewal of its mineral leases, and the U.S. Forest Service concluded that a sulfide-ore mine in the same watershed as the BWCAW was an unacceptable risk to “this unique, iconic, and irreplaceable wilderness area.”

The government’s move to resurrect the expired leases undercuts both the terms of the leases as well as the well-reasoned and transparent decision not to renew the leases due to the risk to the Boundary Waters.

“The federal government is flip-flopping in a way that it does not have power to do,” said Chris Knopf, Executive Director of Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness. “It was an arbitrary and unlawful decision made in favor of a Chilean mining company that wants to conduct a type of mining that has a history of causing environmental damage.  We will not let them come to Minnesota and destroy the Boundary Waters and harm the economy that has developed around this national treasure.”

At stake in the lawsuit is whether or not the government had power to resurrect the expired leases and whether the terms of the leases allowed an automatic renewal.