Precious Waters: film examines Iron Range mining proposal


Fearing jobs may soon trump wildlife in the Boundary Waters Wilderness Canoe Area, St. Anthony Park residents have arranged a second screening of the film Precious Waters, which explores the potential impact of the copper-nickel extraction proposed by PolyMet Mining Co. near Babbitt, Minn. The proposal is now under review by state and federal agencies.

Precious Waters will be shown at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 22, at the St. Anthony Park Branch Library, 2245 Como Ave.

Filmmaker John Whitehead, who created Precious Waters, said he hopes the screening will spark discussion about the competing values. “You have people on both sides of the issue” at the screenings, he said.

Betsy Daub is policy director for Friends of the Boundary Waters, which produced the film. She said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency gave the project’s draft environmental impact statement “the equivalent of an F” and demanded a supplement, which is now being prepared and might be ready this summer.

Daub’s group is concerned about the pollution that comes with the proposed mining operation, which involves discharging “high levels of sulfates,” she said.

The sulfates can free up mercury, turning it into a toxic form that then gets into fish, Daub said. The high-sulfate levels can also affect the health and quality of wild rice, which is why some Indian tribes are also involved in the debate.

While the EPA rarely vetoes a project once it’s been through environmental review, Daub said, it has that power, and it did recently quash a mountaintop-removal plan in West Virginia. “I’m sure nobody in [Minnesota] wants to get to that point,” she said.

But more than beautiful scenery is at stake, according to state Rep. Alice Hausman. “One hundred percent of mining companies say they’ll do no damage,” she said. “Seventy-five percent of them are wrong. Taxpayers get left holding the bag.”

Hausman, who appears briefly in the film, said she will renew her efforts this legislative session to tighten up existing DNR “financial assurances” for nonferrous mining by covering long-term water treatment. In the past, Hausman has unsuccessfully introduced measures specifying allowable forms of insurance, making the financial assurances part of the environmental review, and increasing opportunities for public comment.

Hausman is frustrated that the state’s political leaders won’t risk votes in the Iron Range to protect the environment. “It’s hard to find a legislator who will lead on this,” she said.

“This type of mining is different from taconite mining,” according to Kevin Reuther, of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. “In other areas of the country, copper-nickel mining has led to acid mine drainage, causing water-quality and habitat damage that costs millions and millions of dollars to clean up.

“Strong financial assurance requirements help make certain that the companies that profit from exploiting these mineral resources won’t leave Minnesota taxpayers to foot the bill for future cleanup,” Reuther added.

St. Anthony Park resident Margot Monson, who is helping organize the Feb. 22 screening, said financial assurances don’t mean much.

“As an entomologist who works in aquatic habitats, I can tell you that wetland ecosystems have evolved over eons and one cannot simply recreate them after such degradation, so such assurances are meaningless,” Monson said. “However, if we are able to demand high enough assurances, then perhaps they will give up and look elsewhere.”

Past work on the Twin Cities Public Television project Minnesota: A History of the Land helped prepare Whitehead for Precious Waters, he said. “I kind of immersed myself in the ecology of Minnesota.”

Whitehead, who also lives in St. Anthony Park, said he enjoyed working on an advocacy piece, because it was a change from his usual detachment in storytelling.

“When people hear ‘mining,’ they think, ‘iron mining-we’ve been living with that for years.’ But this is a whole different ball of wax.”

Anne Holzman is a freelance writer who lives in St. Anthony Park.