On the northern tip of Minnesota in the Superior National Forest, a network of waterways surrounded by lush greenery attracts tourists every year to canoe, fish and enjoy the outdoors in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. Some Loyola students are concerned as the wilderness is facing a possible threat of toxic metal contamination.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently cancelled a study which looked at the potentially harmful effects of mining in the nearby Rainy River Watershed. The study also prevented mining in the area, according to a Sept. 6 statement from the USDA.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in the USDA statement the administration intends to preserve the watershed while also increasing “economic growth.”
Claire Nyenhuis, a junior marketing and information systems major from Stillwater, Minnesota, said she has spent a significant amount of time with her family in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.
“It’s so important to us,” Nyenhuis, 20, said. “It’s such a great place and the thought of people not respecting that natural sanctuary, which is what I kind of think of it as, kind of makes me sad.”
Max Motley, who works in the drilling industry in Minnesota, said the Superior National Forest sits on the Duluth Complex, one of the richest copper-nickel mining deposits in the world. He said the area has been explored by mining and drilling companies since the 1950s and 1960s.
“People have been coming in with drill rigs and taking core samples to get data,” Motley said. “That’s how geologists map out what there is in terms of value.”
Tham Hoang, an associate professor in Loyola’s Institute of Environmental Sustainability (IES) who’s done environmental toxicology research — which studies the effects of toxic chemicals on living organisms — said heavy metals are one of the most permanent kinds of pollution because they’ll keep contaminating ecosystems forever unless they’re removed.
In response to the mining ban and study, Sally Jewell, the U.S Secretary of the Interior said in the 2016 press release it was “the right action to take to avoid irrevocably damaging this watershed and its recreation-based economy.”
Patrick Rushman, a senior history major from St. Paul, Minnesota, said while he hasn’t been to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, he has family and friends that have been there. He said many tourism-based jobs could be put in jeopardy if the waters become contaminated.
“All those people that rely on tourism jobs now, they are going to be out of the industry if the Boundary Waters get messed up,” Rushman, 21, said. “All the nature that they rely on big time, not only for their jobs, but for safe drinking water and all of those things, that kind of gets called into question.”
Hoang said he’s not sure what kind of mining practices will take place in the area, but said he has a bad feeling about it, because the caution taken in mining fields can vary.
“With mining fields where they get the metals, they try to remove it before they release that water into the system,” Hoang said. “But that depends on how good it is. I have a feeling that no, whatever they do is still metal that will get into the system more or less, and then of course it will get into the system and organisms living around it will be affected.”
Rushman also said he thinks the methods mining companies might use could be harmful.
“Using the kind of mining they are proposing that they use could be really catastrophic to not only the surrounding areas but the Boundary Waters and also any of the lakes,” Rushman said.
Minnesotans aren’t the only ones who spend time at the waters. Nyenhuis said people from all over the U.S. visit every year.
She said the number one saying at the Boundary Waters Canoe Area is “leave no trace,” meaning visitors need to make sure when they leave the wilderness, it’s in the same condition as when they arrived.
“So if it does become contaminated, it’s just not the same,” Nyenhuis said. “I think there’s very few places that we have in the U.S. that are untouched like that.”
Nyenhuis said opening the area to mining could boost the economy by increasing jobs in the U.S., but said this could lead to a loss of wildlife.
“The number one argument for it is it’s creating jobs and new resources, but you need to take into account what we are losing by threatening these natural areas, because you really can’t get that back once you have ruined it,” Neyenhuis said.
The USDA and U.S Department of Interior didn’t return requests for comment from The Phoenix by the time of publication.