Mining Impacts on Freshwater
Iron ore mining has played a central role in the economy of the Iron Range of Minnesota for more than a hundred years, beginning in the second half of the 1800s. It has long been a controversial issue in the state. On the one hand, the mining industry provides jobs, income, and a key natural resource used in building and other industry. On the other hand, it harbors health and environmental risks. Not only are the tailings ponds where the toxic leftovers of the iron ore mining process are stored a health concern for both humans and the environment, the vast iron ore pit mines leave gaping scars across the landscape. The pit mines have continually increased in size over time as the quality of the ore that is being mined decreases, requiring more and more earth to be dug up to extract enough ore to be usable.
In addition to iron ore mining already prevalent across the Iron Range of Minnesota, 365 square miles of National Forest land in northeastern Minnesota has been recently opened to exploration for a new copper-nickel mine. The land being explored is within the watershed of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, a 1,090,000-acre mile protected region filled with pristine lakes, rivers, and forests. Environmentalists are concerned that if a copper-nickel mine is opened within the BWCA watershed, it will threaten the health of the water and forests there, as well as damage the thriving outdoor-recreation economy of the region. According to a 2018 Star Tribune article, “copper mining carries greater environmental risks than the iron and taconite mining that have long been part of the state’s history. The metals are contained in sulfide-bearing ore, which creates an acid when exposed to air and water that can leach heavy metals and other contaminants out of rock.”
We spoke with Aaron Brown, a longtime Iron Range resident, instructor at Hibbing Community College in the heart of the Iron Range, and a radio host and writer. He provided us with a history of the Iron Range and the role of mining there, then and now.
Listen in to the video story above