In his May 17 letter to the editor, Ely Mayor Chuck Novak suggested Minnesota’s Fourth District Rep. Betty McCollum and nearly three dozen retired Forest Service officials were in a “rush to judgment” in opposing the proposed Twin Metals mine before the company has released an actual mine plan. In addition, he suggested that decisions on mining permits are supposed to be based on the rule of law, including proper environmental review.
I respect Mayor Novak. He’s a smart guy and is willing to listen to both sides of the copper-nickel mining debate, which is more than can be said of some elected officials in our region.
And he is right that there has been a rush to judgment, and that the rule of law has been ignored.
However, it’s Trump administration that has been in a rush to set aside both judgment and the law in their attempt to advance a flawed mining proposal for cravenly political purposes. Mayor Novak is correct that “historically, mining permit decisions have been made based on the rule of law,” and that is actually what took place in the final years of the Obama administration.
When Twin Metals sought the renewal of its mineral lease several years ago now, it well understood that the Bureau of Land Management had discretion over whether or not to renew. They even acknowledged as much in their own financial documents.
The original 20-year lease did provide an option for three ten-year renewals, but the right to renew was plainly contingent on the start-up of mining operations within the initial 20-year lease term. The historical record on that is crystal clear and Interior Department legal counsel under both the Reagan and Obama administrations concluded similarly.
The U.S. Forest Service also exercised its discretionary authority under federal law to consent or withhold consent for mining projects within the Superior National Forest. Forest Service officials went through a public process, soliciting comment and reviewing available science, and ultimately decided to withhold its consent for renewal of the leases out of concern that a sulfide-based mine in the Rainy River watershed risked “serious and irreparable harm” to the Boundary Waters. Many of those who signed onto the recent letter from former Forest Service officials were involved in some way in that decision and know better than any of us the risks posed by the project. Federal law clearly grants agencies the authority to reject development proposals that pose significant inherent risks to sensitive areas, and agencies routinely do so prior to any environmental review of a specific proposal. The Obama administration’s handling of this issue and its ultimate decision was fairly routine, and handled consistently with federal law.
It is the Trump administration that has tossed out the rules and the law by illegally reversing a final decision under the fiction that the decision was based on “legal error.” That decision is now being challenged in court and rightly so.
It is the Trump administration that is also preventing the Forest Service from exercising its right to approve or reject a mining proposal within the Superior National Forest, a right that is clearly granted to the Forest Service in federal law.
Let’s be clear. We don’t need a mine plan to recognize the environmental risks inherent in a sulfide-based mine on the edge of the world’s most spectacular canoe country. The track record of such mines, even in arid regions, is such that the risks are unmistakable to anyone with the desire to pay attention. Given the nature of the resource at risk, I have long maintained that this is, literally, one of the worst locations on the planet for a sulfide-based mine. Recent research on the hydrogeology of the region strongly suggests that transport of pollutants from the mine to downstream surface and ground water is virtually inevitable. There is no technological fix for putting a mine in such a risky location.
Just as critical is the perception problem. Like it or not, true or not, the allure of the Boundary Waters for many is based on the perception that it remains pristine. Like it or not, the construction of a sulfide mine just upstream of a major and central watershed in the wilderness will impact that public perception and affect the decisions that so many people make whether to visit, live, and invest in our area.
The suggestion that it’s somehow premature to call a halt to this project is in error. This is the only practical time to call a halt because, as the mining companies well know, once a project is proposed and an environmental review process begins, it’s more difficult to derail. While it’s widely believed that an environmental impact statement determines whether a project can be done safely, that’s a myth. An EIS reveals the likely impacts of various alternatives and lays out technological fixes that engineers tell them might mitigate those impacts to meet whatever standards are in effect at the time. The inherent bias in the EIS process is that every environmental problem can be mitigated in some form or fashion, which is why virtually every EIS concludes that a project, no matter how risky, can theoretically be done safely. When it comes to sulfide mines, however, the conclusion of the EIS is almost always wrong.
The rush by the Trump administration to begin an environmental review of a Twin Metals mine plan is clearly intended to start the train moving down the track, mostly for political purposes. While the start of an EIS process typically provides political momentum to a mining project, I believe that is less likely in the case of Twin Metals. Given the already widespread and increasingly bi-partisan opposition to the Twin Metals proposal in Minnesota, it would appear unlikely that the project will ultimately be permitted by state agencies, barring some kind a sea change in Minnesota politics. But Trump doesn’t care whether the project ultimately goes forward. He’s interested in the political optics, of being seen as a supporter of even the riskiest type of mining because he’s focused on re-election and believes his actions will help add Minnesota’s ten electoral votes to his column in 2020, thanks to votes from the Iron Range. Whether the mine happens or not is of no consequence to Trump. To him, all things, in the end, are always about Trump, and whatever benefits Trump.
As I have stated for years, the ultimate factor in any mine decision is economics and at this point there is little reason to believe that the Twin Metals proposal is going to be financially viable any time soon. Which is why I believe Ely, thanks to President Trump, is continuing to have a divisive and unhelpful fight over what, at this point, remains a pipe dream. But then dividing Americans for political gain seems to be what Trump does best.