The US Forest Service on Thursday issued a draft environmental assessment to lay the groundwork for a proposed 20-year moratorium on copper-nickel mining upstream of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Formally, the proposal would “elude” for 20 years from re-leasing minerals on approximately 352 square miles within the Rainy River watershed in the Superior National Forest around the town of Ely. The plan threatens to derail the proposed Twin Metals mine near Birch Lake, which feeds into a river that empties into the Boundary Waters. However, a separate project, the proposed PolyMet mine near Babbitt and Hoyt Lakes, which is in a different watershed, would not be affected.
The Forest Service plans to begin a 30-day comment period on Tuesday when it posts a notice in the Federal Register. The assessment was published on the project website https://go.usa.gov/xtaCw. Home Secretary Deb Haaland will make the final decision on approving the moratorium.
“The proposed mineral extraction is aimed at preventing further negative environmental impacts from future mining operations,” the forest service said in its announcement of the draft. “It also assesses the impact of future mining on important social, cultural and economic assets.”
Democratic US Rep. Betty McCollum, who represents a St. Paul-area district and supports legislation to permanently ban copper-nickel mining in the area, welcomed the study, as did environmental groups who have opposed the Twin Metals project for years. They say the risk of acid mine drainage poses an unacceptable threat to the country’s most-visited federally designated wilderness area.
McCollum said in a statement that the draft “clarifies that sulphide ore copper mining in the Superior National Forest poses a toxic threat to the Boundary Waters. This pristine, precious wilderness demands constant protection. The scientific basis of the EA leaves no doubt: it is just too risky to mine in this place.”
However, Twin Metals said in a statement that the study was “uninformed by the science” and contradicted the Biden administration’s goals of ensuring domestic accessibility of copper and other minerals needed for the renewable energy economy.
“We remain confident that we will advance this project, responsibly source clean energy minerals and bring 750 family sustaining jobs and 1,500 spin-off jobs to communities in Northeast Minnesota,” the company said.
US Republican Rep. Pete Stauber, who represents northeast Minnesota, where iron mining is a key industry, said the Biden administration “politicized” the review to kill Twin Metals rather than tackling the project on its own merits evaluate.
“Biden and his elite Democrat peers in Washington and St. Paul are denying my constituents our way of life,” Stauber said in a statement. “Joe Biden has made his position clear: he would rather have foreign and child slave laborers produce minerals, rather than American union miners working to deliver Minnesota’s mineral wealth to the nation and the world using the best environmental and labor standards.”
The Forest Service first proposed the moratorium in the final days of the Obama administration, which terminated Twin Metals’ two federal mineral rights leases. The Trump administration reversed that decision and canceled the environmental review process. But the Biden administration revived the proposed moratorium last year and canceled the leases in January, alleging they were unlawfully restored.
Twin Metals is owned by Chilean mining company Antofagasta. The proposed $1.7 billion underground mine was in the very early stages of the permitting process until February, when the state Department of Natural Resources ended its own environmental assessment, citing the company’s loss of federal leases.
“The Environmental Impact Assessment released today provides a strong scientific basis for a 20-year ban on copper mining near border waters,” said Becky Rom, national chair of the Save Border Waters Campaign, in a statement. “It is deeply rooted in peer-reviewed science, case law and established federal public land policies, and validates the concerns of local residents and the American public about the risk posed to the wilderness by mining sulfide ore copper.”