Sulfide Mining and Voyageurs National Park

Kevin Erickson

Kevin Erickson

Voyageurs National Park encompasses more than 84,000 acres of water. These waters are home to loons, snapping turtles and wood frogs, and 53 species of fish, including lake sturgeon, walleye, and smallmouth bass. These native species rely on clean water to thrive. The nearly 240,000 people who visit Voyageurs each year enjoy kayaking, swimming, boating, and world-class fishing. These visitors contribute more than $16 million to the local economy and support 225 jobs annually.

But the lakes and rivers of Voyageurs National Park are now at risk from proposed sulfide mining projects in its watershed. There are numerous locations where mining corporations are exploring for copper, gold and nickel. The process to extract these metals from sulfide ore deposits produces sulfuric acid and other contaminants, which can leak into the surrounding waters. This pollution would head downstream toward the park.

It is well established that acid mine drainage is a significant environmental risk at sulfide ore mine sites like the one proposed for these leased lands. Even small amounts of acid mine contamination leaking into the Rainy River Drainage Basin would impact Voyageurs’ ecosystem for decades and threaten its pristine waters and wildlife, world-class fishing, and the family-owned small businesses that serve park visitors.

The risks associated with copper, nickel and other sulfide mining operations exist during all phases of mine development, implementation, closure and long-term remediation. Potential impacts to water resources include changes in water quantity and quality, contamination from acid mine drainage and seepage, and tailings basin failures. To date, not a single sulfide mining project has operated and closed without producing polluted drainage.

Findings from a 2015 study commissioned by Voyageurs National Park Association and the National Parks Conservation Association document risks to Voyageurs National Park:

– Report Summary: A Watershed Moment (PDF) 
– Full Report: Potential Metals Mining and Voyageurs National Park, Tom Myers, PhD (PDF)
– Map: Voyageurs Watershed


Support Clean Water at Voyageurs National Park

VNPA is committed to ensuring that our National Park remains protected for its surrounding communities, park visitors and future generations. The effects of acid mine drainage from sulfide (copper-nickel) mining in our watershed leave the potential for permanent damage to Voyageurs National Park’s waters and wildlife. VNPA is carefully monitoring this issue and the potential impacts to Voyageurs. VNPA is a member organization of the Campaign the Save the Boundary Waters, a coalition dedicated to creating a national movement to protect the clean water, clean air and forest landscape of our watershed from toxic pollution caused by mining copper, nickel and other metals from sulfide-bearing ore.  

Additionally, the International Joint Commission recommends a number of studies to scientifically assess the risk from new mining proposals in the watershed. We urge the U.S. Government to fund these recommendations.


On December 15, 2016, the Obama Administration announced it would not renew federal mineral leases critical to the development of the Twin Metals copper-nickel mine. Citing broad concerns from thousands of public comments and input about potential impacts of sulfide mining on the watershed, fish and wildlife, and the recreation economy, the U.S. Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture took actions that denied an application for renewal of expired leases, as well as initiated steps to withdraw key portions of the watershed from new mineral permits and leases. This landmark move could be the beginning of long-term protection for the watershed from sulfide-ore copper mining.

Read the announcements from the Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Land Management, as well as additional coverage of this landmark watershed moment:

Wilderness News
Wall Street Journal
Minnesota Public Radio

A 90-day public comment and review period will be announced soon as a result of the Department of Interior’s decision to begin a comprehensive environmental review to determine whether the watershed is the wrong place for sulfide-ore copper mining and should be removed from the federal mining program altogether.

Loons in Voyageurs National Park. Scott Nagel

Loons in Voyageurs National Park. Scott Nagel

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 Voyageurs National Park Association would like to thank the National Parks Conservation Association, the Quetico Superior Foundation, and the Rainy Lake Conservancy for their support of this effort.