VIRGINIA—Northeastern Minnesota politicians had a clear message for the U.S. Forest Service during a brief rally at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial here on Tuesday: bring a hearing on the Twin Metals …
VIRGINIA—Northeastern Minnesota politicians had a clear message for the U.S. Forest Service during a brief rally at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial here on Tuesday: bring a hearing on the Twin Metals lease renewal applications to the Iron Range.
“If you’re going to have a listening session, have it in the communities that are affected by your decision,” said Eighth District Congressman Rick Nolan, who spoke at the afternoon rally. “These are the people that the Forest Service needs to hear from.”
The Forest Service, last month, announced that it would hold a single listening session on the lease renewals, in Duluth. That location has rankled mining advocates on the Iron Range, who complain it’s too difficult for Iron Range residents to get to a hearing in Duluth.
“It will be dominated by the Downstream Coalition,” said state Rep. Rob Ecklund, DFL-I-Falls, referring to a group of Duluth area business people who have come out in opposition to copper-nickel mining in northeastern Minnesota. Ecklund was among about a dozen local politicians who spoke during Tuesday’s event, which attracted about 90 people, mostly building trades representatives and steelworkers, politicians and staff. Rally-goers say they’re seeking a fair, public process as the Forest Service decides how to respond to the lease renewal requests from Twin Metals, a copper-nickel mining venture owned by Chilean copper giant Antofagasta. The Range Association of Municipalities and Schools organized the rally.
The proposed mine would be located several miles southeast of Ely, along the Kawishiwi River, a major river system within the adjacent Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The proposed mine’s proximity to the wilderness and its potential for water contamination have prompted concerns among environmental groups and land managers that the risks of the project outweigh the potential benefits.
In June, the Forest Service announced that top officials in the agency were “deeply concerned” about the proposal and its risk to the Boundary Waters. The proposed mine would remove hundreds of millions of tons of sulfide-bearing ore, which has proven to be a high-risk form of mining due to the potential for acid rock drainage when the ore is exposed to air and water.
Mining advocates, on Tuesday, said those concerns and issues are best addressed through an environmental impact statement once Twin Metals brings forward an actual mining proposal. “They’re not even close to that point,” said Ecklund. Nolan said the Forest Service should approve the lease renewals and let the process play out. “We should never be afraid of doing the science and the discovery,” he said.
St. Louis County Commissioner Tom Rukavina said he was “deeply concerned” that federal bureaucrats appear biased against Twin Metals and its planned mining operation.
The Forest Service is responding to a request by the Bureau of Land Management to give an up-or-down decision on the two lease renewal applications. The leases, originally issued by the BLM in 1966, have previously been renewed twice before, with little opposition. But the leases have become a major issue with the renewed focus on potential copper-nickel extraction from underneath the federal lands.
While the BLM controls federal mineral rights, the Forest Service (which controls the land surface) must sign off on any decision by the BLM.
Top officials within the Department of Interior, which includes the BLM, have expressed their own doubts about the Twin Metals proposal. Earlier this year, the Department’s solicitor general issued an opinion that the lease renewals were “discretionary,” which means the BLM has no obligation to Twin Metals to re-issue the leases. Without renewal of the leases, the Twin Metals project, which is already highly speculative given current metals prices, would no longer be feasible.
Ely Mayor Chuck Novak noted that Twin Metals has invested a significant amount of resources in the community and he urged that the Forest Service hold a listening session in Ely.
While Rukavina called Ely “strongly supportive of mining, Novak noted that Ely is not of one mind on the issue. “Ely also happens to be ground zero for the anti-mining crowd,” he said. “It’s a daily issue for us,” suggesting that the dispute has led to divisions within the community.
Whether the Forest Service will heed the call for additional listening sessions on the issue remains to be seen. Forest Service spokesperson Kris Reichenbach said the agency agreed internally that the resources and the timeline didn’t allow for more than one session, although she acknowledged that the Forest Service doesn’t have a firm deadline for its decision. “There is a need to be timely, however,” she said.
The decision-making process for the lease renewal request is also somewhat uncertain, noted Reichenbach, since the decision does not require the usual environmental review. “A NEPA process isn’t really possible, since there’s no specific project to analyze at this point,” said Reichenbach.
That’s a point that mining advocates have made themselves, arguing that opposing the lease renewals is premature, since there’s little scientific basis upon which the Forest Service can make a decision, for or against.
“That’s a valid point of input,” said Reichenbach. “That exact question is coming up.”
Yet while the Forest Service could make its decision without public input, Reichenbach said the agency did want to provide at least some opportunity for the public to weigh in. While, in the past, the Forest Service has frequently held forest-related hearings on the Iron Range, in Duluth, and in the Twin Cities, it opted to hold just one, in Duluth. “We felt it was kind of central,” said Reichenbach. “It’s closer to the Iron Range than to the Twin Cities.”
The written comment period is currently underway and comments can be mailed to: Superior National Forest, 8901 Grand Ave Place, Duluth, MN 55808, or emailed to: TwinMetalsLeaseInput@fs.fed.us. The Duluth hearing is set for 5 p.m. -7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, July 13, at the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center.