Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

DNR and Twin Metals

Agency makes a good decision to go its own way on environmental review

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The decision by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to conduct its own environmental review process into the impacts of a proposed Twin Metals copper-nickel mine is a good one, that will allow Minnesotans to have a stronger voice in ensuring the protection of the most spectacular place in our state.

As we’ve seen in the past three years, the Trump administration simply cannot be trusted to protect the environment, and it has corrupted the internal workings of our government to serve, in many cases, the president’s personal interests and agenda. That has certainly been the case with Twin Metals. We can only wonder what kind of quid pro quo led to the administration’s illegal reinstatement of mineral leases for the project.

By conducting its own separate review under the Minnesota Environmental Policy Act, or MEPA, the DNR will, at a minimum, make it far more likely that the process is conducted deliberately and in the light of day. Commissioner Sarah Strommen is promising full transparency, which would be a marked change from the shroud of secrecy that has descended around the workings of the federal government under the Trump administration.

Strommen told reporters this past Friday that the DNR has already requested any and all information developed by the Department of the Interior and the Forest Service related to the project, and that includes all of the studies and other documentation received during the review of the proposed mineral withdrawal, a review that the Trump administration abruptly ended just weeks before it was scheduled for completion. So far, the administration has refused to release the results of that review, even to congressional oversight committees, which suggests there is information the administration doesn’t want the public to know.

It certainly must be stated that the DNR lacks a perfect track record when it comes to its involvement in such environmental reviews. The agency’s handling of the PolyMet review and subsequent permitting has prompted the Minnesota Court of Appeals to suspend PolyMet’s permit to mine, along with other permits, until issues raised by mine opponents can be properly examined. That’s an unusual step for Minnesota courts to take and it suggests judges don’t like what they’ve seen so far.

But there’s reason for optimism that things will play out differently in the case of Twin Metals. Given its location just upstream of a major BWCAW watershed, the environmental risks associated with the mine are extraordinary. Sulfide-based mining in a water-rich environment has proven to be a disaster time after time. Locating such a mine on the edge of the nation’s most popular wilderness area, where water quality is of paramount concern, is foolhardy, which is why the U.S. Forest Service ultimately exercised its veto on the project back in late 2016. The Trump administration has since opted to ignore the Forest Service’s authority on the matter.

Yet, Minnesotans have indicated that protecting the BWCAW is of paramount importance. Polls show strong bipartisan opposition in the state to a sulfide-based mine on the edge of the wilderness. This is an important issue for Minnesotans and we suspect that the Walz administration and any future governor will endeavor to ensure that a state review is methodical, rigorous and transparent— if only because it’s good politics to make sure of it.

Ultimately, this mine proposal may not even get that far, since the legality of the lease reinstatement which makes the project possible is certainly questionable. While the Trump administration is likely to win the first round on that issue— given that the case was assigned to an ideological Trump appointee— opponents have far better prospects once the case arrives at the D.C. appellate court.

And there are still significant questions about the financial viability of the project. The economics of the Twin Metals project have always been sketchy. Twin Metals officials still insist they plan to operate an underground operation, which is inherently more expensive than open pit mining. Yet even open pit mining of the extremely low-grade ore found in the Duluth Complex is economically marginal, as the finances of the PolyMet project have demonstrated.

We’ll learn more about the economics when the company issues an actual mine plan next month.

In the meantime, Minnesotans should, at a minimum, feel more confident that at least one environmental review of that proposal will be transparent and science-based. It means Minnesotans are less likely to lose control of a process that could have major repercussions for the future of the state.

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