REGIONAL— The Biden administration announced this week that it is taking steps to protect the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness by prohibiting the issuance of any new mineral leases on 225,378 acres of the Superior National Forest for the next two years while the Forest Service studies the impacts of a 20-year mineral withdrawal. Those lands are located upstream of the 1.1-million-acre BWCAW, within the Rainy River watershed.
According to a press statement, the administration is taking the steps in response to “broad concerns about potential impacts of mining on the wilderness area’s watershed, fish and wildlife, tribal trust and treaty rights, and the nearly $100 million annual local recreation economy.”
The Forest Service filed its application for a mineral withdrawal with the Department of the Interior earlier this month, but the application wasn’t official until the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees federal mineral leasing, had given its blessing.
“The Boundary Waters area is an irreplaceable natural resource renowned for high quality fishing, wildlife viewing, and recreational opportunities,” said Tom Vilsack, who oversees the Forest Service in his role as U.S. Agriculture Secretary. “I have asked the Forest Service to work with the Bureau of Land Management to complete a careful environmental analysis and engage the public on whether future mining should be authorized on any federal land adjacent to this spectacular and unique wilderness resource.”
The administration’s action significantly complicates the path forward for the proposed Twin Metals copper-nickel mine, which has generated considerable opposition from conservation groups. The mineral withdrawal, if ultimately enacted, would not, on its own, deprive Twin Metals— a joint venture controlled by the Chilean mining giant Antofagasta— of its two existing mineral leases. Those leases, which the Trump administration agreed to renew back in 2019 after they were terminated in the closing days of the Obama administration, are the subject of two federal lawsuits filed by a coalition of Minnesota businesses and environmental groups. Those lawsuits are currently on hold while the Biden administration completes its own review of the legality of the Trump administration’s decision to renew the leases.
A mineral withdrawal would, however, complicate the company’s application for a third mineral lease, which the company says it will require for implementation of its current mine plan. That application will now be on hold while the Forest Service completes its two-year study and would be on hold for 20 years if the withdrawal is eventually approved.
The decision effectively restarts a process that was aborted by the Trump administration back in 2018. The Obama administration had initiated the withdrawal process in late 2016, but the Trump administration canceled the two-year study just prior to its completion and refused to release any of the results of the analysis, despite calls to do so by members of Congress and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
The latest decision should allow the Biden administration to complete the study and make a final withdrawal determination within the remaining three-plus years of its current term of office. The Forest Service is expected to publish its intent to complete an environmental assessment of both the environmental and economic impacts of the proposed withdrawal in the Federal Register within the next couple weeks. That will begin a 90-day public comment period, which will include public hearings to take testimony. No date or location for those hearings was announced this week, although based on past practice at least one hearing will likely be held in northeastern Minnesota. A previous withdrawal proposal, begun by the Obama administration, had generated more than 90,000 public comments.
Whie the federal mineral leasing program is overseen by the Bureau of Land Management— an agency within the Department of the Interior— the Forest Service manages the surface rights in question and has discretion over whether to allow mining on its lands within the Superior National Forest. In late 2016, the Forest Service had rejected a third renewal of the two existing mineral leases controlled by Twin Metals, citing what it viewed as an existential threat to the environmental integrity of the BWCAW, renowned for its exceptional water quality. Mine opponents have argued that the proposed mine, which would process sulfide-based ore, would inevitably cause acid drainage that could permanently impact water quality downstream. The BWCAW is located just a few miles downstream from the proposed mine.
Mine supporters argue that the proposal would create hundreds of high-paying jobs and they tout claims by the company that the mine can be built and operated safely. Opponents argue that the existing recreational and service industry built up around the Boundary Waters creates a more diverse and sustainable local economy.
This week’s announcement is a major step forward for mine critics, led by the Ely-based Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters. Enactment of a 20-year mineral withdrawal is the first of four initiatives that the campaign has undertaken to achieve permanent protection of the BWCAW from sulfide mining within its watersheds. The campaign is also working with Fourth District Congresswoman Betty McCollum on federal legislation that would enact a permanent ban on sulfide-based mining within that portion of the headwaters of the Rainy River watershed located upstream of the BWCAW. In addition, the campaign is working to update state mining rules and to advance new state legislation that would prohibit the permitting of sulfide-based mines upstream of the wilderness.
Viability of the mine questioned
The economic viability of the Twin Metals mine has long been in doubt. While the deposit that Twin Metals has proposed to mine is vast, it is also low grade, mostly below one -percent copper, with much smaller percentages of nickel and platinum group metals. A 2014 pre-feasibility study issued by the project’s previous owner, Duluth Metals, suggested marginal profits, even with metal price assumptions at near record highs. The preliminary mine plan prompted Antofagasta to decline an option to purchase a larger stake in the venture and as Antofagasta stepped back, Duluth Metals’ stock collapsed as investors soured on the project’s $2.5 billion price tag combined with marginal returns. Antofagasta eventually picked up the outstanding shares of Duluth Metals for about $85 million, which was pennies on the dollar.
Despite nearly seven years since taking control of the venture, Antofagasta has yet to make any updated financial projections public. It did produce a mine plan, which it submitted to both state and federal regulators nearly two years ago, but that proposal included no financial estimates. The plan called for a 20,000 ton-per-day underground mining operation, which is substantially lower output than the 2014 plan, which called for production approaching 50,000 tons per day.
Plenty of reaction
Twin Metals Minnesota expressed “deep disappointment” with Wednesday’s announcement, but noted that the company’s mineral rights span 11 presidential administrations and that the company remains steadfast in its commitment to uphold those rights and advance its proposed mining project. “We are working to determine the best path forward to continue advancing our proposed world-class underground copper, nickel, cobalt and platinum group metals mine,” said the company in a statement. “We are firmly dedicated to the communities of northeast Minnesota and to advancing a sustainable mining project that will bring much-needed economic growth to our region, in addition to the opportunity to responsibly develop the critical minerals needed for our global efforts in combatting the climate crisis.”
Others weighed in as well in support of Twin Metals and the jobs the mine could create. Minnesota’s Eighth District Congressman Pete Stauber blasted the administration, which he accused of “putting politics over science.” Stauber also directed fire at Democratic members of the state’s congressional delegation, who have supported protection of the BWCAW. “Today’s announcement further proves that the Biden Administration and Democrats in Congress are incapable of doing what’s right for union members and working families across northeast Minnesota,” said Stauber.
Closer to home, District 3A state Rep. Rob Ecklund called for an environmental review of the mine project itself, without “undue delays or interference.”
“The roadmap announced today is duplicative, unnecessary, and arbitrary, preventing us from even considering the project and its potential to boost our regional economy,” Ecklund added.
But Congresswoman McCollum lauded the decision. “Today’s action by the Biden administration is a welcome return to the science-based decision making that should govern the management of our public lands,” McCollum said in a statement. “After years of broken promises and ongoing obstruction of taxpayer-funded data from the prior administration, I am pleased that President Biden is committed to completing the necessary analysis to understand the impacts that sulfide-ore mining could have on this priceless reserve of fresh water, the biodiverse habitat it supports, and the economic livelihood of the surrounding community.”
Becky Rom, national chair of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters agreed. “You don’t allow America’s most toxic industry next to America’s most popular wilderness. This is a great first step on the pathway to permanent protection. The appropriate next step for the administration is to revoke the two Twin Metals leases that the Trump administration unlawfully reinstated.”
Chris Knopf, executive director of the Friends of the Boundary Waters, said the decision marks a dramatic turnaround from the previous administration. “After years of the previous administration doling out arbitrary and unlawful favors for a Chilean owned-mining company and launching an all-out assault on the Boundary Waters, people are breathing a sigh of relief,” he said.
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