An American organization visited Fort Frances last week to raise awareness surrounding a threat to local waterways and the environment.
The Save the Boundary Waters campaign held an information session in the Shaw conference room at the Fort Frances Public Library last Wednesday evening (Aug. 14.)
National campaign chair Becky Rom said the message surrounding a complex situation boiled down to a simple statement: “The headwaters of the Boundary Waters canoe area wilderness and Quetico Park and Voyageurs National Park is the wrong location for a sulfide-ore copper mine. And we are working to permanently protect the watershed from copper mining.”
The issue at hand arises from the proposed sulfide-ore copper mine that Chilean mining giant Antofagasta wants to put on the edge of the Boundary Waters wilderness area.
The dangers, Rom explained, come from the requirements of the sulfide-ore mining process, which involves processing an ore that contains less than one percent of useable metal, resulting in tailing ponds for waste produced by the extraction processes.
“What we know from sulfur bearing ore is the waste in the tailings will contain sulfides, heavy metals like lead and arsenic and sulfates,” she said.
“When you pour water on it, when it rains or when it snows, what comes up is something that we call acid mine drainage. That consists of sulfuric acid, heavy metals and sulfates. Every single modern copper mine in the United States degrades water quality. Every single one.”
While the tailing ponds themselves are located far away from Fort Frances, Rom explained that the runoffs would enter the Rainy-Lake of the Woods watershed, an area which reaches from Shoal Lake near Kenora down to Fort Frances and well into the United States. The proximity of these tailing ponds to our waters is what should concern Canadians, according to Rom.
“It would be important for more people on the Canadian side of the border to become aware of the issue, if for no other reason than Quetico park, which is in the direct path of water pollution that would flow from the mine north,” she said.
“Canada is a beneficiary of the Boundary Waters Treaty, and in the Boundary Waters Treaty, the United States has promised not to pollute the waters of Canada. Canada has a stake in this debate, and has rights in this debate so that polluted water does not flow across the border into Quetico park and then north towards Hudson Bay.”
According to the campaign's website, a single copper mine in the watershed would pollute the wilderness for at least 500 years.
During the presentation, Rom presented a wealth of scientific evidence backing up the dangers posed by mining efforts in the Boundary Waters area, and explained that the campaign had made significant progress towards challenging Antofagasta's mining claims during the Obama administration.
However, when Trump was elected president in 2016, their efforts hit a wall.
“We have a very different approach to public land protection now in the U.S.,” Rom explained.
“There's a very pro-industry approach to public lands now in the Department of the Interior.”
Rom said that their campaign currently has a lawsuit in front of a federal court in an attempt to stop the Trump administration from fast-tracking mining efforts in the vicinity of the Boundary Waters.
“Right now we're trying to persuade congress to take action against the executive branch of government and force the agencies on the U.S. side to do the job that they are required to do,” Rom said.
“To follow the law, to not suppress science, to uphold and follow longstanding processes, and to respect the values of the American people.”
While it may not seem at first glance that there's much that can be done by Canadians, Rom said that the Provincial and Federal governments could have a say in matters due to the Boundary Waters Treaty.
“I think what we need to do is get members of parliament engaged and start demanding on behalf of their constituents that the treaty be complied with,” she said.
“There are other situations on the border between the U.S. and Canada where U.S. members of Congress are upset about mines on the Canadian side and are doing exactly that. And so Canada is being asked to comply with the Treaty, there's no reason why Canada can't ask the United States to comply with the Treaty, and in fact, I think the fact that it's being asked in other places gives more credibility and credence to what Canada demands.”
However, Rom said that it's not the place of the campaign to make demands of the governments on the north side of the border, believing the effort needs to come from Canadians.
“I think that that has to happen from Canadians,” she explained.
“Part of our reason for being here is to bring public awareness to people who live in Canada so they can ask their members of Parliament and the provincial government to take action.”
Fort Frances town councillor Doug Judson invited the campaign to speak in Fort Frances, and noted that the spread of knowledge about the risks to our wilderness is crucial to protecting it.
“We live in a common watershed and their campaign has done such a great job getting media presence and clicks and eyeballs and public awareness going south of the border that I wanted to give them an opportunity to plant maybe a seed of awareness, if not activism, here,” Judson explained.
“So tonight is about sharing information, about learning about what they know and see what our organizations or us as individuals choose to do with that.”
Anyone wishing to learn more about the campaign or the effects sufide-ore copper mining has on wilderness areas can visit www.savetheboundarywaters.org.