REGIONAL— Minnesota elder statesman and former Vice-President Walter Mondale has added his considerable political weight behind the push to block further development of the proposed Twin Metals copper-nickel mine, near Ely.
In an op-ed in the Minneapolis Star Tribune this past weekend, Mondale said he is joining the call to protect the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, which many people fear could be harmed by Twin Metals’ proposed sulfide-based mining operations within the watershed of the 1.1 million-acre wilderness. In doing so, Mondale urged the federal Bureau of Land Management to withdraw two federal mineral leases that are critical to Twin Metals plans.
“Ideally, the BLM and its parent, the Interior Department, will move to withdraw from its mineral leasing program all federally managed minerals in the Boundary Waters watershed,” wrote Mondale. “That would permanently protect the Boundary Waters from sulfide-ore mining. But so long as the Twin Metals leases are extant, that step would have only partial results. The agency has ample authority to do both those things — deny the leases and withdraw the minerals. Our job is to see that it finds the will to do so.”
Mondale’s commentary comes on the heels of Gov. Mark Dayton’s announcement that he would block access to state lands near the site, which the company had sought to enter for geo-technical analysis and baseline data gathering. Dayton also cited the proposed mine’s proximity to the Boundary Waters as the impetus for his opposition. Dayton also contacted the director of the BLM recently, urging her to withdraw the mineral leases, which date back to 1966 and have never been subject to significant environmental review.
Twin Metals has argued that the BLM is legally obligated to renew the leases, but in a rare opinion, issued March 8, the Department of Interior’s Solicitor determined that renewal of the leases by the BLM is discretionary, meaning the federal agency would have the legal justification to withdraw the leased minerals.
Growing opposition movement
Opponents of the Twin Metals mine, who have organized nationally as the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, plan a major push in the coming months to encourage the BLM to withdraw the mineral leases. The group has been adding to a growing coalition of environmental and sportsmen’s organizations that have come out in opposition to the mine and they have been meeting with key decision-makers for more than a year to build political support for lease cancellation.
Campaign chair Becky Rom, of Ely, lauded Mondale’s recent op-ed comments and said she especially appreciated the historical context he gave to the struggles to protect the Boundary Waters. “The 1978 Wilderness Act was passed during the Carter-Mondale administration,” said Rom. “He had a very strong interest in the passage of the act. He knows what’s been done over the years to protect the wilderness and he’s just asking us to take the next step.”
For mine opponents, that next step is withdrawal of the federal leases. Rom said she expects that the BLM will act soon to begin an environmental assessment of the lease renewal and she expects the federal agency could make a final decision before the end of the year.
“That review will take a close look at the science, including the ecology of the area, and sulfide mining and will look at what happens when you put those two together,” said Rom. “Based on that, the BLM will make its decision.”
That makes the timing of a recent peer-reviewed scientific study particularly fortuitous. The Journal of Hydrology, just last month, published a study by Dr. Tom Myers, a Nevada-based consulting hydrologist who has worked for the campaign, on the potential risks associated with acid mine drainage, using an analysis Myers had done on the proposed Twin Metals mine and its effect on the Rainy River watershed. While the study is highly technical, it concluded, among other things, that the mine would likely leach contaminants, particularly sulfates, into the Boundary Waters watershed as a result of normal operations. The research also recommended better pre-planning for mining operations, with an effort to avoid mining in areas where leakage would threaten valuable downstream resources.
In addition to new science, the campaign rolled out new polling last week, by a national polling organization, that shows overwhelming majorities of Minnesotans oppose sulfide mining within the Boundary Waters watershed. According to a telephone poll of 500 Minnesota residents, 67 percent oppose sulfide mining near the BWCAW, while only 16 percent indicated support. Even within the Eighth District, 61 percent of those interviewed expressed opposition to mining near the wilderness, while 26 percent supported it.
Supporters push back
While Twin Metals has remained largely silent over the recent developments, mine supporters have mounted a counter-offensive, of sorts. On March 8, the Ely City Council unanimously backed a resolution asking Gov. Dayton to reconsider his position. The Babbitt City Council was set to pass a similar resolution this week, according to Mayor Andrea Zupancich, who planned to carry the resolution to St. Paul on Wednesday.
Members of the Iron Range delegation and Eighth District Congressman Rick Nolan also took exception to the governor’s action. “I’m deeply disappointed,” said Rep. Rob Ecklund. “We have processes in place and we need to follow those,” he added. “To just make an executive decision isn’t right.”
Harsher criticism showed up on some social media sites, some of which was picked up in an editorial in the strongly pro-copper-nickel mining Ely Echo, suggesting that Dayton was taking orders from his ex-wife. “Being the little grunt he is. Hard to think for yourself when you’re on chronic pain killers!” stated the Echo. The Echo also suggested that the governor was acting illegally, and that he was actively seeking to “sabotage” Ely’s economic future.