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Organic Consumers Association

Midwest Mining Rush Threatens Water: Part I: Foreign-owned Mining Companies vs. U.S. Regulators

Some of this nation's most pristine ancient forests, glacial wetlands and fresh water lakes are under threat from large, multinational mining companies that plan to extract billions of dollars in copper and nickel using methods untested in a water-rich environment. The Great Lakes Basin - America's largest supply of surface fresh water - faces the duel dangers of increasing prices for industrial metals and a failing economy in desperate need of good paying jobs. These economic realities have weakened efforts to protect the region.

In the upper Midwest, mining companies estimate there is the largest deposit of copper, nickel and precious stones in North America encased in nearly 5 billion tons of low-grade rock. The span of sulfide ore that harbors these vast amounts of metals and stones runs from the tip of Lake Superior's Duluth Complex through Minnesota's Arrowhead region. It borders the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Voyageurs National Park. It is underneath Wisconsin's acres of wild rice and Native American territorial lands and extends to Michigan's storied Upper Peninsula and then into Ontario, Canada. This rock, when exposed to air and water, sparks a toxic reaction that creates sulfuric acid.

Because the region suffers some of the highest unemployment rates in the nation, there is enormous pressure to let the mining companies come. While the region has been host to centuries of traditional mining, metallic sulfide mining is very different. The process involves removing one percent of metals from a sulfide ore body and discarding 99 percent of the remaining material. One of the best ways to describe this type of mining is to imagine traditional mining as digging the chocolate chips out of a cookie, while sulfide metal mining is more akin to extracting the sugar out of the cookie. And while that might work in arid Nevada, experts contend it is unlikely to have as good an outcome in the Great Lakes Basin, a region with the nation's largest concentration of surface fresh water.


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