Do you support copper-nickel mining near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness?

Sitting along an old forest logging road, an exploratory drill site operates 24 hours a day to acquire core samples from thousands of feet below the Earth's surface. Here, in a photo from October 2012, one of those exploratory drill sites operates outside Ely, Minn. (Derek Montgomery for MPR)

“The polarizing divide over the future of mining around Ely will be on display this weekend, when an anti-mining group opens shop on Sheridan Street, the canoeing mecca’s main drag,” writes MPR News reporter Dan Kraker.

Workers in the new center, dubbed “Sustainable Ely,” will encourage tourists to take action urging President Barack Obama to protect the region’s environment from copper-nickel mining. They also want people to urge Gov. Mark Dayton’s administration to expand a mining protection zone around the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.

Down the street from tourist shops like Mostly Moose and Loony’s Northwoods Emporium, the new center houses a shiny Wenonah canoe dotted with several signatures scrawled in black marker. Anti-mining activists aim to gather thousands more.

“We hope to portage this down the mall in Washington, D.C., and present it to President Obama, and ask him to protect the Boundary Waters watershed from sulfide ore mining,” said Becky Rom, a retired attorney who is among nearly 100 contributors to the center.

Although the center’s organizers see mining as a major environmental threat, many in town believe it copper-nickel mining can be done safely and jumpstart the region’s economy.

About a dozen miles southeast of Ely, Twin Metals Minnesota has proposed a massive underground mine in an area estimated to contain more than $100 billion worth of copper, nickel and precious metals. The company has been drilling in the region for years but its proposed operation is still in the planning stages.

It all comes down to sulfur

“Sulfur is the great collector of metals in nature,” said Jim Miller, geologist, University of Minnesota-Duluth. “If it wasn’t for sulfur, there would be no economic quantities of copper-nickel to be mined. And so to extract these metals, we’re going to have to deal with the sulfur.”

Sulfur, specifically a chemical reaction involving sulfur, is at the heart of the controversy over copper-nickel mining — in Minnesota and elsewhere.

All the miners have to do, he said, is bring sulfide rock up to the surface. Once it is exposed to oxygen in the air, and water, a chemical reaction will occur that creates among other things sulfuric acid — also called “acid rock drainage.”

“It’s a very simple reaction,” Miller said of the process that can cause severe water pollution. That’s why Miller calls sulfur the blessing and the curse in copper-nickel mining. Without it, the metals wouldn’t be congregated closely enough together to make mining them economically feasible. But because of that sulfur, mining companies have to manage the acid mine runoff, which he said they historically haven’t done well.

Environmental review

Bob McFarlin, vice president of public and government affairs for Twin Metals Minnesota, told Kraker that Ely doesn’t have to take the mining company’s word for it. The project will go through a rigorous environmental review that will likely last several years.

“We believe and are strongly committed to protecting the environment and we believe we can protect the environment with our projects, and provide great economic benefit to the region,” McFarlin said. “But we’re not the ones that make that decision. We propose the project, and the regulatory agencies at the federal and state level will determine whether our project can move forward.”

Today’s Question: Do you support copper-nickel mining near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness?