REGIONAL— U.S. Forest Service officials said Monday that they are “deeply concerned by the location” of the proposed Twin Metals copper-nickel mine, and are considering denying a request by the …
REGIONAL— U.S. Forest Service officials said Monday that they are “deeply concerned by the location” of the proposed Twin Metals copper-nickel mine, and are considering denying a request by the company to renew two federal mineral leases that are critical to the project.
Forest Service officials stated their concerns at the same time they announced a 30-day public comment period and a “listening session” on the company’s lease renewal request. That session is scheduled for July 13, at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center, in Duluth. The public comment period will run through July 20.
The Forest Service’s announcement is just the latest indication of growing concern about the potential environmental consequences of the Twin Metals project, which would be the first major mining operation within the watershed of the 1.1 million-acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The Forest Service, in a release, said the agency is concerned by “the inherent risks associated with potential copper, nickel, and other sulfide mining operations” within the Kawishiwi watershed. “Those risks exist during all phases of mine development, implementation and long-term closure and remediation,” the release continued. “Potential impacts to water resources include changes in water quantity and quality, contamination from acid mine drainage, and seepage of tailings water, tailings basin failures and waste rock treatment locations.”
While the mineral leases at issue are actually under the authority of the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service does control the surface at the mine site and the two federal agencies typically work in concert when mineral leases are up for review. Indeed, during a visit last fall to Ely, BLM Deputy Director Linda Lance said Forest Service approval is “necessary” for the BLM to proceed with renewal.
The federal BLM first issued the two existing federal mineral leases, known as MNES 1352 and MNES 1353, to the International Nickel Company, or INCO, back in 1966. The leases, which are the only two such leases ever issued on the Superior National Forest, have changed hands over the years, and today are controlled by Twin Metals and its parent company Antofagasta.
The original leases remained in effect for 20 years, and have twice been renewed, for ten years each time. The two leases most recently expired Dec. 31, 2013, and in anticipation of that fact, Beaver Bay Inc., a company headed by longtime prospector Ernie Lehman, began the reapplication process back in October 2012.
While the BLM approved previous renewal requests with little public involvement, Deputy Director Lance indicated that would not be the case this time around. “We want to hear from as many people as possible this time,” said Lance. “We’re a multiple- use agency, charged with balancing competing interests,” she said.
Twin Metals officials have argued that renewal of the leases is “non-discretionary,” but the BLM’s solicitor issued an opinion in March that took the opposite position, arguing that Twin Metals has no automatic right to renewal.
At the same time, the BLM has come under intense political pressure to deny the permits. Gov. Mark Dayton, in March, spoke with top BLM officials to urge denial of the lease renewal. He also ordered state agencies to deny the company access to state lands they sought to enter for further project development.
Former Vice President Walter Mondale also weighed in on the issue in favor of wilderness protection against the risks posed by the proposed mine.
Dayton, on Monday, lauded the Forest Service’s comments on the risks of the mine. “I share the view expressed by the Forest Service,” he said. “My position regarding this project and its inherent danger to the Boundary Waters remains unchanged.”
But Eighth District Rep. Rick Nolan parted company with the Governor. “I strongly disagree with the Forest Service’s decision to withhold consent on the renewal of the Twin Metals leases. In my judgment, the agency should promptly renew the leases, as they have done twice already without controversy.”
Nolan said the renewal of the leases is not the same as granting final approval for the project, which he said would only go forward after an in-depth environmental review. “That decision will rest on a rigorous and thorough process based on science, facts, and technology,” he said.
Twin Metals expressed its own disappointment with the Forest Service’s announcement, calling its stated concerns “general and arbitrary.” “The USFS statement suggests a disturbing predisposition or bias in opposition to granting renewal,” said company officials in a release issued on Tuesday. “Twin Metals considers this premature opposition to be inconsistent with the USFS’s duties and obligations,” said the company, suggesting that it may consider a lawsuit. “Twin Metals is evaluating all options to protect the company’s valid existing property rights, due process and contractual entitlement to renewal of the federal leases,” it stated.
Meanwhile, environmental opponents of the mine were elated with the Forest Service’s comments. “The Boundary Waters Wilderness is a one-of-a-kind natural wonder and key driver of the economy of northern Minnesota,” said Becky Rom, National Chair for the Campaign to Save the Boundary the Waters. “In recognizing the incredible value of the wilderness and the dangers posed by sulfide-ore copper mining, the Forest Service’s announcement is an important acknowledgement about the need to protect the Boundary Waters.”
In addition to denying the leases, the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters is also urging the Forest Service to ask Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to withdraw the federally owned minerals within the Boundary Waters watershed from the federal mineral leasing program. This would protect the Boundary Waters from mining for at least twenty years.