by CHRIS ROGERS
Wenonah Canoe is suing the federal government over its decision to allow Twin Metals to establish a copper sulfide mine just outside the Boundary Water Canoe Area (BWCA). On June 21, the Winona company joined seven BWCA outfitters and organizations, another Minnesota canoe manufacturer, and the nonprofit Northeast Minnesotans for Wilderness in suing the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI), the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke.
To explain why his company is suing the federal government, Wenonah Canoe owner Mike Cichanowski walked through the production floor at the company’s Winona factory. It was full of canoes in all stages of assembly — Kevlar hulls drying in molds and craftsmen custom-building wooden gunwales. On each boat was a work order describing who ordered it and what they wanted. Many were bound for BWCA-area outfitters. “It’s a big part of my business. It really is,” Cichanowski said.
Wenonah Canoe is one of the foremost makers of Kevlar canoes in the world, and the BWCA is one of the most popular canoe destinations anywhere. Cichanowski described visiting the Boundary Waters as a life-changing experience, especially for young people like those who visit the Boy Scouts’ Northern Tier canoe base. “You’re a young scout, you go up there for your first time — it’ll change your life,” Cichanowski said.
Cichanowski fears that the Twin Metals mine could change the Boundary Waters for a long, long time. The proposed mine is just a few miles outside the BWCA, at Birch Lake, southeast of Ely, Minn. The mine site holds valuable copper deposits, and is upstream from the Boundary Waters. The company is proposing to mine tens of thousands of tons of ore, which would be crushed and chemically processed to produce copper. Mine tailings are a waste product of that type of mining, and when the tailings come into contact with water, it can produce acid mine drainage. There have been other mines in the U.S. that have spilled or leaked acid mine drainage, causing serious environmental harm downstream. That is what Cichanowski and others are worried about. “Sooner or later you will have a break. They’re not going to contain that forever,” he said.
Twin Metals claims the tailings should not produce acid mine drainage, and the company has a plan for containing them. Some of the tailings would be stored at a distant location, outside the BWCA’s watershed. The rest would be buried in the underground mine itself and sealed in cement, according to Twin Metals. However, the U.S. Forest Service, which controls the Superior National Forest where the proposed mine site is located, decided in 2016 to reject the mining proposal. “Acid mine drainage is a significant environmental risk at sulfide ore mine sites, and as the Boundary Waters is a water-based ecosystem, contaminated water could have dramatic impacts to aquatic life, sport fisheries, and recreation-based communities,” Forest Service officials explained in a statement. “After careful consideration, including two public listening sessions and a 30-day public input period, the Forest Service determined that the inherent risks of mining sulfide ore adjacent to the irreplaceable BWCA is unacceptable,” they added.
The new lawsuit challenges a decision by the BLM to lease mining rights to Twin Metals in spite of the Forest Service’s decision. The leases were originally granted to a different company in 1966, before the creation of environmental review laws that govern modern mining proposals. Twin Metals bought up the defunct company and tried to renew the leases, but, in December 2016, under the Obama administration, the Forest Service and BLM denied the renewal request. This May, under the Trump administration and Zinke, the BLM renewed the leases without the Forest Service’s approval, according to the plaintiff’s court filings.
Wenonah Canoe and the other plaintiffs claim that the BLM’s decision to reinstate the leases was not legal and that the mine would threaten their businesses.
Before making the decision to sue, Cichanowski tried to use other means to sway decision makers. He travelled to Washington, D.C., to lobby lawmakers and bureaucrats. “Lobbying is kind of a dirty word, but how else would a representative in Maine understand issues in Northern Minnesota?” he said. Cichanowski’s company also supported numerous campaigns against the Twin Metals mines. “This is a bipartisan issue,” he stressed, pointing to polling by Fabrizio Ward that found that 70 percent of Minnesota voters oppose sulfide ore copper mining near the Boundary Waters.
“I’m in kind of a funny position,” Cichanowski said. “I support jobs. Truly — it’s what I do. I support farming, and I support mining. You’ve got to have that stuff or you wouldn’t have a society.” Cichanowski said he does not object to the proposed PolyMet mine or to limited amounts of well-regulated frac sand mining. “I’m not opposed to mining, but I’m opposed to this mine in this place.” He explained, “It’s very close to the headwaters, and it’s sulfide mining.” Cichanowski believes that if the mine is allowed, sometime, maybe years in the future, there would likely be a spill that would kill off plants and wildlife in Boundary Waters and damage the ecosystem for the long-term future. “It just couldn’t be in a worse spot,” he added.
The lawsuit is getting publicity across the state. Asked if he believes that would help or hurt his business, Cichanowski responded, “I don’t know. That really wasn’t part of my decision.” While he is relatively confident that most of the BWCA outfitters he sells to are opposed to the mine, he said some may support the mine. “It’s kind of a sticky wicket. You don’t want to offend other people, and it’s a hard subject up in Ely,” Cichanowski stated. “But quite honestly,” he continued, “you saw what we do. If we can’t take a stand against this, who could?”
The DOI and U.S. Department of Justice declined to comment for this story.