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No Blank Check for PolyMet’s Pollution

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.

Announcing the Winners of the 2018 Boundary Waters Photo Contest

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!

40 years of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness

Over the course of this year, you may have noticed that we’ve been talking a lot about the 40th anniversary of the passage of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act. Anyone who has had the opportunity to visit the BWCAW and get close to this magnificent wilderness, has been impacted by this piece of legislation.

This act added the final “W” to the BWCA, making it the BWCAW, and a more-fully protected wilderness area.

Commemorating the passage of this bill into law is a chance to remember that the wilderness we love didn’t just happen. It took the efforts of ordinary people to protect and preserve the area and make it into the wilderness we enjoy today.

Imperfect protection

In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act.

In the drafting of this bill, Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey had been adamant about including the Boundary Waters in the Federal Wilderness System. To do this, Humphrey had to navigate the strong opposition  in northern communities. He crafted language that allowed for special exemptions in the Boundary Waters. Where other Wilderness Areas banned all motorized vehicles and had protection from industrial development, some areas of the Boundary Waters would remain open to logging and mining, and well over half of the BWCA was open to motorized vehicles.

It may have been part of the Wilderness Preservation System, but really, it was a Wilderness in name, not management.

You can see how some people would be upset by this. Almost immediately, the tension between those who wanted a true wilderness, protected from developers and motorized travel, and those who want the wilderness available as a resource and opened to a motorized travel, turned into a heated battle.

Lawsuits mounted until it was evident that congress needed to resolve the issue.

Two visions and a compromise

In the political arena, two Minnesotan congressmen (both Democrats) came to represent competing sides of the controversy: Democrat Jim Oberstar of the Eighth District (northeastern Minnesota) and Don Fraser, representing Minneapolis.

Oberstar drafted a bill that divided the BWCA into two “zones.” One zone would have full wilderness protection and another zone would allow for logging and motorized vehicles.

In stark contrast, Fraser introduced a bill that would make the Boundary Waters into a true wilderness area, adding around 35,000 acres to the proposed wilderness.

This set off a series of often contentious public hearings. Compromise bills were presented but went nowhere. Eventually, two attorneys, Chuck Dayton — who represented the environmentalist’s concerns — and Ely attorney Ron Walls sat down to negotiate a compromise.

The proposal they came up with was not popular. Both sides felt as though they had sacrificed too much. Despite reservations, it was this compromise that made its way through the House, passed the Senate and arrived on President Carter’s desk.

A phenomenal short documentary by the talented Isaiah Bischoff

The importance of this legacy

To be restored to a true wilderness, the Boundary Waters needed people. This might sound paradoxical, after all, we tend to think of wilderness as a place without any people. But the history of the BWCAW is a history of people working to create a wilderness for future generations.

40 years after the passage of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act, it’s easy to take the BWCAW for granted, to think that it was always part of our state, that it was always a protected area.

History could have taken a very different direction.

The creation of BWCAW was mired in controversy. Though much of the disputes surrounding the 1978 bill have died down, tensions still exists between those who advocate for wilderness for its own sake and those who see an economic opportunity in the land.

The wilderness needs friends, it needs people like you to advocate for it.

Though the Boundary Waters has had federal protection for 40 years, it still faces numerous threats. This is why your support is so important.

Thank you for all you do!

It’s Time to Make Protecting the BWCAW into a National Issue

The outrage many of us felt when the Trump administration announced it would no longer consider a 20-year mining moratorium in a large part of the Superior National Forest is still fresh.

Thousands had spoke up against sulfide mining. Our concerns were backed up by science. Studies suggested opening the region to copper-sulfide mining would actually harm the economy in the long run.

But ultimately, money and foreign influence seemed to win.

To say that many of us feel frustrated, is an understatement.

On Monday, October 8th, a sign of hope came from Yellowstone.


Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke — who describes himself as “a pro-mining guy” — signed a 20-year ban on new mining claims on 47-square miles of public land on the outskirts of Yellowstone National Park. Considering how Trump’s administration has been so blatantly pro-mining, this move may come as a surprise to many. Indeed, it has upset mining interests in the area.

Yellowstone is, of course, one of the crown jewels of the National Park System. It’s a place treasured by people around the country. It’s a natural area that receives international attention.

Of course, with this 20-year ban on new mines in this area near Yellowstone, one can’t help but hear echos of the proposed 20-year mineral ban in areas adjacent to the BWCAW.

It seems unfair that while Secretary Zinke is all too eager to open Bears Ears, Grand Staircase-Escalante and the BWCAW to mining interests, he gives privileged protection to Yellowstone. We’re happy this protection is in place and realize the dynamics for the mineral ban near Yellowstone are different than they are near the BWCAW. But the news from Yellowstone makes one thing abundantly clear:

To protect the Boundary Waters, we need make the fight against sulfide mining a national issue.


As Minnesotans and midwesterners, many of us have grown up around water. Lakes are everywhere. Sometimes it rains too much! But an abundance of pristine water is nothing to take for granted.

Fresh water shortages affect almost every corner of the globe, and clean water is becoming increasingly scarce. Preserving northern Minnesota’s clean, water-rich environment is more important than other.

Even if there were not a global water crisis, the Boundary Waters would still be one of the most important — and unique — ecosystems in our country.

As such, it is more outrageous than ever that politicians and others would even think about supporting a toxic industry that was guarnateed to pollute these pristine waters.

It’s time to make protecting the Boundary Waters into a national issue.

If you live in Minnesota or Wisconsin or Illinois, talk to out-of-state friends, colleagues and family about the issue. If you live outside of the region, contact local, state and federal legislatures. What’s happening in northeastern Minnesota might not concern them, but we need to make noise about these threatened waters. 

In Secretary Zinke’s own words: “I’m a pro-mining guy. I love hardrock. But there are places to mine and places not to mine.”

At a time when major cities are running out of water, when drought threateners large parts of the country, it’s in the nation’s interests to protect the pristine waters of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Recap of the 2018 Annual Gathering

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!