Sen. Tom Bakk spoke the truth at a recent community joint powers board meeting in Ely, and in doing so he highlighted why those concerned with the risks posed by the just-released Twin Metals mine proposal have pushed for completion of a study on a proposed mineral withdrawal.
For years, Twin Metals supporters have claimed that the study was somehow short-circuiting the established process, and that any attempt to foreclose the possibility of a mine short of the completion of an environmental impact statement is somehow illegitimate.
“Let’s follow the science. If it’s proven it can be done safely, then let’s do it,” has been the standard line from mine supporters for the past several years.
Unfortunately, that isn’t the question that the environmental review process is designed to answer. As Sen. Bakk noted, the environmental review, which is the initial part of the permitting process, is designed to better understand the risks and attempt to mitigate those risks to the extent that’s financially feasible. That process is not designed to answer the more fundamental questions of whether a proposed project makes sense or poses too great a risk to allow to move forward.
“So, once they start down that road of applying for those permits it’s pretty hard to stop,” said Bakk.
Whether the Twin Metals project can be done safely would not be addressed by an environmental impact statement (EIS) or a permitting review, which is why mine supporters are being disingenuous, or simply reflecting their misunderstanding, when they claim otherwise. The reality is that a major sulfide mine is going to have significant, negative environmental effects. It will never be “safe” from an environmental perspective. Whether those effects or risks are acceptable is a political question, not one that will be determined or even considered by an EIS or the subsequent permitting process. Major industries have long understood that once a project begins the environmental review process, the larger political decision has essentially already been made that the project should advance. As Sen. Bakk stated: “The truth is, the environmental review process is not intended to stop projects.”
So, when does society ask the fundamental questions? Such as, is a sulfide mine located directly upstream from the nation’s most spectacular water-based wilderness a good idea? And how will the economic costs balance out against the economic gains that such a mine might bring?
There actually is a process for reviewing these larger public interest questions associated with a project like Twin Metals— and that’s the study that was underway as part of the proposed mineral withdrawal, at least until the Trump administration opted to end it just months before it was due for completion.
Rather than spend a decade and hundreds of millions of dollars conducting an environmental review of a project that could ultimately be disastrous for the region’s long-term economic and environmental health, the two-year study was supposed to assess the economic costs and benefits of the proposed mine and answer the larger question of whether this was the right place for this most dangerous form of mining.
This wasn’t a made-up process simply invented by environmentalists to try to scuttle the Twin Metals proposal. The mining withdrawal process was established in federal law decades ago as a way to protect other public values from exploitive uses or for reserving federal lands for a particular public purpose or program. The withdrawal process, which invariably includes a study, examines the bigger questions about the costs and benefits associated with a project, or whether its location is appropriate given the inherent risks.
These are the broader questions that Minnesota and the Walz administration must have answers to before agreeing to undertake any kind of environmental review. The administration should not only insist that the Trump administration release the data gathered to date for the aborted federal withdrawal study, but that the feds actually complete the study through a fair and transparent process. If not, the state of Minnesota should conduct its own examination of those issues. Only then, can Minnesotans make a fully-informed decision about the actual merits of a sulfide mine just upstream from the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. If a state EIS begins on a mine plan, those fundamental questions will never be answered and Minnesota will risk losing one of its most spectacular assets without ever really having a debate.