Empty Water

As the family car drove past the beautiful blue-green lake, the boy wondered why no one was swimming in the lake. Why no ducks or geese paddled its rippling surface. Why no cat tails swayed along its shores.

“It’s the mine,” his father said. But the boy saw no mine, or at least no buildings that might cover a mine shaft. Mines were dug deep into the soil, he believed. They went so deep they hit rock which had to be chiseled away. Deeper and deeper went the mine into rock, until it reached coal, when it stopped. Miners wearing headlamps were lowered in rickety elevators far into the ground, there they extracted the coal. When miners and coal came to the surface, the miners’ faces looked black as if they’d bathed in coal dust.

There are mines in Minnesota but not coal mines. I was about to find this out first hand. The day began quietly as I sat in the dark before a huge picture window. I’d brought coffee and notebook to a long table before the window. Slowly as I came awake, the sky brightened. Clouds touched with vermilion lifted into the dark above a gradually brightening layers of blue, red, pink, and gold. The sky was intensely beautiful, and empty except for a crow flying past. Below tte sunrise rippled the huge body of water we call Lake Superior, the largest freshwater lake in the world.

Later I met a fisherman named Sven. By the time I arrived at the solid, spacious fish house, he’d developed a rhythm, lifting a herring from a wet bag, slapping the rather stout silver fish on a cutting board, chopping off its head, slicing down its middle and scooping out its innards. He checked the lungs to make sure they were dark red. If they were white, it meant the fish had been dead too long. Such fish he flipped into another bag. “For the gulls,” he said and smiled at me. Outside in the shallow water, gulls called and lifted and settled, pushing against each other, eager to snatch up the discards.

Once the inedible parts were sliced away, Sven daintily filleted the pink flesh–a surgeon of herring for restaurant patrons up and down the North Shore.

Sven had a comfortable face gray-bearded face, and easy-going ways. He introduced me to the wide wooden rowboats herring fisherman row out into the lake. There they anchor nets which they check the next day or two. Drawing a length of net into the boat, they toss the herring stuck in the net into pails of lake water, and draw another segment of net forward. Their boats are deep as refrigerators, and curved as melons. Their ribs are stout as oak branches. Sven’s grandfather made many in his time. The newest one Sven showed me was still golden in its stout elegance.

“We couldn’t fish for herring when Reserve Mining was still dropping tailings into the lake,” Sven recounted. “Herring don’t tolerate murky water.” Now that the mining has stopped, herring have returned. “They’ll never be as many as before,” Swen said.

That’s what worries many of us about the newest proposed Poly Met mine near the North Shore of Lake Superior. Poly-Met implies many, poly, metals, met. Poly-Met wants to copper and nickel out of sulfide-containing rock. The water used in the mining operation would be dumped. Lately the Sierra Club estimates that it would take 500 years for natural processes to clean flowing water of sulfide pollution. These waters would include the Boundary Water area and the St. Louis River which runs into Lake Superior, not to mention groundwater, of this highly toxic sulfide pollution. Poly-Met needs state approval to begin this mine.

Though proponents argue that the mine proposal has passed all kinds of environmental reviews, that it will bring hundreds of jobs to a depressed area of the state, the counter arguments have, in my opinion, far more weight:

* once Poly-Met (run by a Canadian company) is established, the number of jobs will decrease…

* Poly-Met will be mining a rock that contains sulfide. Sulfide pollutes water–water deep underground, water in rivers, lakes, streams and in Lake Superior. Sulfide pollution takes hundreds of years to dissipate. It essentially is permanent for any foreseeable future.

* Such a mine would be an environmental disaster for any location, but this Poly-Met mine would be situated near the St. Louis River which runs into Lake Superior. Its sulfide pollution would seep into ground water which feeds a vast network of lakes and streams and potholes throughout northeastern Minnesota and the contiguous part of Canada. Vast segments of forest and many towns would find the water that makes life possible so polluted that, as Rachel Carson’s opening to The Silent Spring foretold, all would be quiet. All birdsong and spring peepers, all children’s singing and shouting, all creaking of fisherman’s oars, all yelping of wolf pups and snorting of does and stags. Children would develop intestinal trouble, Many would die young. Mothers would abort fetuses. Fathers would find themselves wheezing when they lift something heavy.

Environmental disaster has only one other name. The surface of it can be quiet, and peaceful, even beautiful. But it is silent because so much that was once alive is now dead.

  1. Barb Parisien

    I wish there were more publicity about Poly-Met. It’s a terrible idea! You should send your piece to the local newspapers.

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