A Proposed Copper Mine Could Poison Boundary Waters. This Teenage Activist Is Fighting Back.

Joseph Goldstein decided that while he was fighting cancer, he’d also fight to protect his favorite wilderness. Now, Congress is introducing a bill to do just that.
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Boundary Waters

Sunset over the Boundary Waters

Joseph Goldstein was just 13 when he was diagnosed with high-risk acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a blood cancer that’s hard to treat and often returns. Just a few weeks into treatment, the Make-A-Wish Foundation came calling to ask if they could make a wish come true for him. But where other kids might have used their wish on a dream vacation or a meeting with a celebrity, Goldstein decided he wanted to save his favorite place, Minnesota’s Boundary Waters, from mining.

He’d spent summers paddling in the million-acre wilderness since he was 6 years old, exploring miles of interconnected lakes, rivers, streams, and wetlands and camping along granite spits on a landscape shared with Canada lynx, loons, and wolves. As he started chemotherapy, facing nausea and headaches in a three-year treatment regimen, he found himself picturing his time there.

“I had been using some of my memories from the Boundary Waters and the lessons I learned there, drawing on all that for strength,” he said. “I’d think back on the feeling of paddling across the lake, or portaging a canoe, or just sitting around the campfire.”

On one trip, guide Jason Zaborkrtsky had mentioned a proposed mine upstream of the wilderness. Minnesota has a long history of mining in the Iron Range, but this mine, proposed by Twin Metals, was different: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says copper mining produces “the largest percentage of metal mining and processing wastes” in the nation, and some of that waste forms sulfuric acid, while some can be radioactive. This copper-sulfide ore mine would sit in the Superior National Forest, five miles from the wilderness boundary and adjacent to the South Kawishiwi River, which flows through Boundary Waters and Voyageurs National Park.

Along with the copper targeted, the mine would excavate sulfide minerals. When sulfide is exposed to water, it dissolves, creating sulfuric acid. In extreme examples, that acidity matches lemon juice, a dose fatal to insects and fish. That acid “mobilizes” other metals, according to the EPA, including uranium, as well as lead, cadmium, and arsenic, all of which can leach into waterways. A peer-reviewed study of 14 similar mines found that all of them accidentally released toxic waste into the surrounding environment. Heavy metals can travel through the food web through fish, loons, eagles, and ospreys. 

In the one week he was free from treatment that year in 2015, Goldstein traveled to Washington, D.C. (After Make-A-Wish determined his request was too political, he organized the trip with coaching from his mother and Zaborktsky.) There, he told his story to lawmakers and Interior Department staff in a series of meetings.

“I was scrawny and skinny, and my hair was still falling out, so it was a little intimidating for me to be in D.C., meeting with all these lawmakers, the Chief of the Forest Service, and the Secretary of Interior,” he said. Some officials sent their staff, but many times, he met face-to-face with lawmakers.

“It turns out, when you have cancer and you say you want to meet with someone, they go out of their way to make it happen,” he says.

Last month, he was back in D.C. again—this time a college freshman in a neat navy suit—to speak at the introduction of the Boundary Waters Wilderness Protection and Pollution Prevention Act. Rep. Betty McCollum, a Democrat from Minneapolis, introduced the bill, which would permanently protect that portion of the national forest from mining and shield almost 2,000 lakes and 1,200 miles of canoe routes, 1,500 cultural resource sites including historic Ojibwe village sites and pictograph panels, and a watershed that provides 20 percent of the water supply for the entire National Forest System.

“From the pristine, clear waters, to the stillness and quiet that is nearly unmatched anywhere else in the nation — this place is a refuge and source of adventure for many,” Rep. McCollum said in a press statement. “The BWCAW is intact today because of more than a century of protections. We have an obligation to continue this legacy.”

But, like many environmental proposals now, the bill is facing strong opposition from the executive branch. Forest Service staff say they’re bound by President Donald Trump’s orders to expedite domestic mineral development in the name of national security.

When the Forest Service considered the proposed mine under the Obama administration, it received more than 180,000 comments, 98 percent of them opposing it. United States Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell decided the inherent risk was “unacceptable” and “might cause serious and irreplaceable harm to this unique, iconic, and irreplaceable wilderness area.” He proposed withdrawing the area from mineral development and commissioned an environmental assessment of that proposal.

But in 2018, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue terminated those studies, 20 months into the 24-month process. Despite multiple directives from Congress to finish it, the administration has refused to do so. The Forest Service claims the in-progress analysis “did not reveal new scientific information,” justifying their decision to put the mine back on track.

To former agency head Tidwell, that explanation rings false.

“If this review had truly suggested that sulfide-ore copper mining does not threaten the Boundary Waters, then the Administration would have simply completed and published the study,” Tidwell explained in written comments submitted to the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, the first to hear Rep. McCollum’s bill.

Instead, he continued, the years have only added to the scientific evidence on the likelihood of harm. Should a spill occur, remediation would be impossible. The area’s hydrogeology would quickly spread any contaminants. Common remediation methods—water diversions, water treatment plants, and containment basins that would operate for decades—would be “inconceivable” in this landscape.

Twin Metals submitted its formal plans to the state of Minnesota in December, the latest step in a $450 million, decade-long campaign to build the mine, according to Minnesota Public Radio. The company estimates it will create 765 jobs. The plans describe stacking dry tailings, instead of storing them wet, to reduce risks of contamination and dam breaches like those occurring at similar mines. They’ll dig 20-foot wide tunnels, more than a mile long, sloping to an ore reserve 400 to 4,500 feet below the surface. The proposals filed with the state say their research shows they won’t produce acid mine drainage. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has said that rather than relying on the federal government's report, it will conduct its own to ensure a "transparent and predictable and credible" environmental review.

Fight for Mining Minnesota, a nonprofit organization founded by a former mayor of a Boundary Waters gateway community, Joe Baltich, says banning the project would be “a devastating maneuver to local, state, and national economies, while at the same time, weakening our national capabilities.”

At the committee hearing, representatives from the Interior and Agriculture departments told House Representatives that the president had ordered them to expedite mining plans. The area near the Boundary Waters is thought to contain one of the world’s largest deposits of copper, nickel and platinum, all essential elements for batteries, electronics, and the aerospace and defense industries.

Twin Metals has spent more than $1 million on lobbying since 2016. The company’s owner, Chilean billionaire Andrónico Luksic, also has a more informal tie to the first family: He rents a mansion in D.C. to Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump.

Economic research commissioned by mine opponents counters that, over the next 20 years, the tourism industry could produce twice the number of jobs the mine’s latest planning documents say it’ll provide. A Harvard economist found that, in the long term, the mine would leave the region worse off.

One of the beauties of the Boundary Waters is that its accessible to people of any age and physical ability, outfitter and guide Zaborkrtsky told Congress during the bill’s committee meeting.

“You don’t have to be rich; you don’t have to be in super great shape — but you have to be curious and adventuresome,” he said. His business, Ely Outfitting Company and Boundary Waters Guide Service, depends entirely on people heading into the Boundary Waters to canoe, camp, fish, and explore. He and other local business owners worry those customers will vanish if a mine opens up.

As Goldstein was finishing his chemotherapy, he decided to launch Kids for the Boundary Waters to continue training youth as advocates for the planet they’d like to inherit. He’s now been to D.C. more times than he can recall—at least ten—and last year took about eighty 15- to 22-year-olds with him. This summer, he expects to do it again.

“The arguments have stayed pretty much the same, the science hasn’t really changed. We’ve got new data that says, still, this is a bad decision, we’ve got more economic data that shows this is a bad idea,” he said. “The information is the same. It’s just harder to get this administration to listen.”

This year, they’ll focus getting HR 5598 passed, though it will face an uphill battle in the Senate. If it doesn’t pass, he said, they’ve got some other strategies in mind. (He declined to share specifics.) 

One thing's clear: Years later, Goldstein still believes in the healing power of the Boundary Waters. Everyone who goes there is "changed, and changed for the better," he writes in a letter on his organization's site.

"We are called to be guardians of sacred places," he says, "and now, more than ever, we have to plant our feet, stand our ground, and defend."