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Rising Water in Mine Pit Leads to Growing Concern in Bovey

July 7, 2008

By Janna Goerdt, Duluth News-Tribune, Minn.

Jul. 7–BOVEY — It’s a problem that’s only getting deeper.

The water level in a nearly 5-mile-long chain of abandoned mine pits on the western Iron Range continues to rise, even as the debate persists over how to drain some of that water before the lake overflows into nearby Bovey, or the crumbling pit walls give way.

If that happens, it’s uncertain what would happen to Bovey and its population of 669, or to surrounding communities. Some people believe the water would trickle out gradually; others predict a raging torrent.

What’s certain is that people recognize a breach is possible: A main rail line that transported taconite along the edge of the Canisteo pit was shut down years ago out of safety concerns, and the Itasca County sheriff recently held a series of public preparedness meetings in case of a pit water emergency.

Officials have studied the rising water in the pits for more than a decade. About 12 old mining pits, last actively mined in the 1980s, have gradually filled with rain, groundwater and runoff; they’re now known collectively as the Canisteo pit. The water is now 300 feet deep in some places, about 20 feet below the lowest pit walls.

For years, most people had assumed that excess water from the pit would be siphoned into Trout Lake, south of Bovey. In April, the Minnesota Legislature approved $3.5 million to build a solution to the rising water. But the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources recently revived a proposal that would allow the water level to rise even higher and then flow downhill through a series of drainage tubes into the Prairie River west of Bovey.

A new report about how stable the mine pit walls are at specific water levels, compiled by Wenck Associates, might be presented Thursday at a meeting of the Western Mesabi Mine Planning Board. The board has been studying the situation for years.

But some people in Bovey are getting sick of all the discussion, especially as they watch the Canisteo pit water rise a few feet each year, and as more and more of the pit walls slide into the clear, turquoise water.

“Quit making studies,” said Bill Nielsen, who used to work in one of the pits that make up the Canisteo chain. Today, he lives in nearby Coleraine. “Get down to brass tacks and do something about it,” he said. “For all the thousands of dollars they’ve spent on studies, they have not taken one quart of water out of there.”

“Fix it,” agreed Ron Miller, who lives not far from the rising water in Bovey. He was irritated by one of those recent public safety meetings. “Let’s not talk about evacuating; let’s talk about what to do about it,” Miller said.

Hydrologist Mike Crotteau said the DNR is trying to find the best long-term solution, given that the pit seems likely to keep collecting water, and the DNR will be responsible for maintaining whatever solution is agreed upon. He said a solution probably wouldn’t go into effect until next summer.

“There’s a number of different people’s concerns out there,” Crotteau said. “People are excited about moving forward, but we have to reach a consensus on what is the most practical route. What’s the most cost-effective, and what meets the demands of the public as well as the state?”

There are barriers to both of the proposed solutions, Crotteau said.

Installing pipes to drain water out of the west end of the Canisteo pit is an attractive option because no mechanics are involved, Crotteau said. However, that water would flow across the Mesabi Trail, County Road 61 and three railroad grades until it reached the Prairie River. A necessary feasibility study has not been completed for this option.

On the other hand, siphoning water out of the Canisteo pit into Trout Lake and from there into the Swan River would have to be repeated periodically, “plus, we don’t know if it would really work,” Crotteau said.

The state would be responsible for maintaining the equipment and water lines, said Mike Peloquin, regional manager for the DNR waters division in Grand Rapids.

“There would be significant and long-term maintenance, and that’s not very appealing compared to agravity-flow system,” Peloquin said. He said the gravity-flow system would be less expensive to build.

The joint-powers Western Mesabi Mine Planning Board began studying the situation in 2001, and a number of formal studies about environmental, economic and technical factors were done between 2002 and 2007.

“None of the options is without its potential negative factors,” said Doug Learmont, a member of the planning board.

Kevin Kangas, a project manager with Wenck Associates in Duluth, said the company’s final report will look at the safety of the pit walls when the water level in the pit is at 1,300, 1,308, 1,315 and 1,319 feet above sea level. Officials believe the pit will overflow if the water reaches 1,325 feet above sea level.

The report must be completed by July 20.

JANNA GOERDT covers the communities surrounding Duluth. She can be reached weekdays at (218) 279-5527 or by e-mail at jgoerdt@duluthnews.com.

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