While some groups may interpret these poll results as a popular mandate from the people of Minnesota to prevent copper mining in the state, the numbers just as easily may indicate that advocates of environmentally responsible mining must do a better job of teaching the public, including Vice President Mondale, about the environmental protections in place to ensure that developing world-class copper and nickel resources will not harm the environment.Mr. Mondale wrote: “Sulfide-ore copper mining has poisoned 40 percent of all watersheds in the western United States.” But this characterization was misleading for two reasons.
First, Mr. Mondale misquoted, or misinterpreted, the Environmental Protection Agency document that says, “Mining in the western United States has contaminated stream reaches in the headwaters of more than 40 percent of the watershed in the West.” Possessing an understanding of basic hydrological terminology, such as “stream reaches” and “headwaters,” is imperative to understanding this passage. A “stream reach,” as defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is a length of stream or valley used as a unit of study. “Headwaters,” according to the EPA, are the smallest parts of river and stream networks but make up the majority of river miles in the United States. So short portions of streams have been impacted by mining activities in the “reaches” and “headwaters” in 40 percent of much-larger watersheds in the Western United States.
No incidence of stream contamination is a good thing, but this statement told us very little about the actual quality of water in these watersheds, and it certainly gave the reader no indication of whether the larger watersheds exceed the water-quality standards established by the EPA and state regulatory agencies.
Unfortunately, the context of Mr. Mondale’s assertions gave the impression that these watersheds are now entirely poisoned. This is simply untrue and is the equivalent of stating that if a hypothetical spill occurred in a small stream in western Wisconsin, for example, the entire Mississippi River watershed would be poisoned.
The second problem with Mr. Mondale’s statement was that the comments did not acknowledge that the problems experienced in places like Colorado stem from old mines established long before environmental protections were established in the 1970s. Those protections were only refined and reinforced in the 1990s. Modern, environmentally conscious mining technologies and strict environmental regulations greatly reduce the impacts of modern mining on the natural environment, as has been seen at the Eagle Mine in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
The underground Eagle Mine currently is producing copper and nickel in a way that does not pollute the environment. State and federal permits require Eagle Mine to monitor air and water for pollutants at the mine, and this monitoring program is verified by the Superior Watershed Partnership, an independent environmental group established to provide additional oversight over the mining operation.
All human activities have an impact on the environment, whether those activities are mining, forestry, or even tourism. While the potential environmental impacts of mining are real, they can be managed and mitigated with today’s technology in a way that allows the local economy to benefit from the economic activity and the jobs created by the mining industry.