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Critics Say Proposed Copper Mine In Minnesota Threatens Pristine Water


A plan to dig a mine in Minnesota has led to a fight over clean water. A company is seeking to build an underground copper mine just a couple of miles from the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. That is a stretch of federally protected lakes and rivers along the Canadian border. Here's Minnesota Public Radio's Dan Kraker.


DAN KRAKER, BYLINE: The snow is at least 3 feet deep today outside Jason Zabokrtsky's cabin near the town of Ely, Minn. He straps on a pair of snowshoes and tramps through the woods to White Iron Lake.

JASON ZABOKRTSKY: It's really a beautiful day. The snow on the lake really sparkles.

KRAKER: This spot is just four miles upstream from the Boundary Waters, where Zabokrtsky first canoed more than 20 years ago. He says he feels a deep personal connection to the pristine lakes and rocky shorelines - and now owns a canoe outfitting business here.

ZABOKRTSKY: And all that relates to our clean water and our healthy forests that are unlike any place else in Minnesota or the world, where you can paddle along and dip your cup in the lake and drink straight from the lake.

KRAKER: But he fears that both his business and the wilderness itself are threatened by the proposed mine. Zabokrtsky insists this isn't your typical NIMBY, or not in my backyard, story. The Boundary Waters is one of the most visited wilderness areas in the country. He says it's everyone's backyard.

ZABOKRTSKY: I just did the tally. And last summer alone, we had guests from 48 different states plus 13 foreign countries.


KRAKER: I hop in a truck with Julie Padilla from Twin Metals Minnesota, the company behind the proposed mine. We bounce over rocky dirt roads to get to the place where the company plans to tunnel deep underground for copper, nickel and precious metals. It's outside the Boundary Waters, but right on the shore of a huge lake that flows into it.

JULIE PADILLA: Well, we've been asked this question - why can't you just go mine this somewhere else? Well, we can't move the deposit. This is where the resource is.

KRAKER: This is the kind of mining, though, that has left a legacy of water pollution in some western states. But Padilla says Twin Metals is planning a modern mine that will protect the Boundary Waters. She insists there's a strict process in place to evaluate the proposal. And if it doesn't pass muster, it won't go forward.

PADILLA: But I think we have an opportunity here to do it well here and do it in the same way that we've done with our iron mining over the last hundred years.

KRAKER: While northeastern Minnesota is canoe country, it's also mining country. There are fourth-generation miners here who still work in huge, open-pit iron ore mines.


PETE STAUBER: Mining is our past, our present and our future.

KRAKER: That's Republican Congressman Pete Stauber speaking at a recent rally.


STAUBER: Generations of miners here on the Iron Range have made a great living, helped us win world wars.

KRAKER: Stauber and other mining supporters here argue that Twin Metals and other companies exploring nearby could create another mining boom, this time based on copper. Chuck Novak is the mayor of Ely. The town's last iron ore mine closed in the 1960s.

CHUCK NOVAK: I don't want the town to die. We need good-paying jobs - people get good disposable income that they can go out and spend money in town and improve the economy.

KRAKER: But as mining's economic impact has waned, the tourism and outdoor recreation economy has boomed. Peta Barrett owns another canoe outfitting business in Ely.

PETA BARRETT: If anything happened that polluted the water to the degree that copper mining has shown it does, there's no filter manufactured that I could filter the water and let my clients drink it.

KRAKER: Twin Metals still faces multiple lawsuits and regulatory hurdles and is years away from possibly opening. But it's already created a bitter divide over which of these treasures is best to capitalize on, the ore underground or the natural beauty above it.

For NPR News, I'm Dan Kraker in Ely, Minn.


Dan Kraker