Boundary Waters campaign hopeful Biden administration will halt copper mine

Ken Kellar
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

There may be a new administration in the White House, but that doesn’t mean the Save The Boundary Water campaign’s work is over.

Becky Rom, the national campaign chair of the environmental group said that even though they feel the tide is turning in their favour as the Biden administration takes power, stopping mining in the Boundary Waters area in the short term was only ever the first step of the process.

“In addition to hoping the Biden administration takes up again the process to ban mining for up to 20 years, the Quetico and Boundary Waters aren’t 20 year wildernesses, they are forever wildernesses,” Rom said.

“Twenty years may be the longest an executive branch of government can protect a place, but our congress can make a ban permanent, a forever ban for forever wildernesses.”

The Save the Boundary Waters campaign has been actively challenging a proposed sulfide ore copper mine planned by Chilean mining corporation Antofagasta. The Twin Metals mine would be operating in an area very close to the Boundary Waters wilderness area in Minnesota, an ecosystem that is directly connected to the Quetico lake system, as well as the Rainy River watershed, which flows west through Manitoba before winding up in Hudson’s Bay to the north.

Sulfide ore copper mines, Rom explained during a previous trip to Fort Frances in 2019, are well known for the heavy metals that wind up in their tailing ponds as a result of ore extraction, which can have disastrous effects on the environment and water quality in the event that tailing was ever leaked into the wild.

While the campaign had made some progress into demanding stricter review of the mine’s plans during the Obama administration, once Trump and his team took office things began to fall apart for their conservation efforts. Biden, however, has already in his short time in office made several executive orders strengthening environmental protection – some of which undo Trump’s own orders – and Rom said the whole campaign feels they are back on track to protect these delicate ecosystems.

“We had made forward progress in the Obama administration to the point the U.S. Forest Service said the watershed of the Boundary Waters and Quetico Park and Voyageurs Park is the wrong place for copper mining and we’re not going to agree to any mineral leases or renewals in the watershed,” Rom explained.

“The forest service had started a process under federal law that is used when places are too valuable or too vulnerable for mining. The end result is that based on science the department of the Interior in the U.S. would direct a 20-year mining ban.”

Trump had ended the process of looking into a 20-year mining ban and revoked the cancellation of both mining leases in the Boundary Waters area, both held by Antofagasta.

Heading up to the 2020 U.S. election, the fate of the entire watershed seemed to hang in the balance. However, with Biden winning things have begun looking like they did before Obama left office. The campaign has a pair of lawsuits in U.S. District Court challenging the pair of leases, and Rom said it will be up to the Biden administration to decide if they want to fight for the previous administration’s decision. However, what the campaign knows of Biden and his team leaves them hopeful.

“We know president Biden has selected cabinet members and agency leaders with strong public land and science backgrounds,” she said.

“The two secretaries that are most important for the Boundary waters are the Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack. His department oversees the forest service and on the U.S. side the forest service manages the Boundary Waters. The second secretary who is important to us is the nominee for the Department of the Interior, Deb Haaland. The department of the interior manages the entire federal mineral estate and lands that are managed by all the federal land management agencies.”

Rom said the two nominees each have “outstanding knowledge” of the threat that sulfide-ore mining poses to the wilderness areas in the region, and has history with challenging the mining leases in the area, as well as looking at permanently banning copper mining in the Rainy River drainage basin. The two nominees are still awaiting confirmation by congress before they take up their roles.

Rom emphasized that there is no commitment from the Biden administration to continue onwards with procedures to finalize the protection of the Boundary waters area, which is why the The Save the Boundary Waters campaign won’t be giving up their efforts either. Rom says there could still be room for the northern side of the border to have its voice heard when it comes to protecting the wilderness area that is shared between the United States and Canada.

“We’d like our neighbours to the north to be engaged as well, there is a role for Canada,” Rom said.

“The Boundary Waters treaty of 1909 has a promise, a commitment by the U.S. not to pollute the waters of Canada, and Canada has been engaged in this issue. When the two [mining] leases were renewed, Global Affairs Canada submitted a comment letter during the environmental review process on renewing the Twin Metals leases. This is January 2019, and they wanted to know how the governments could coordinate and look at these leases to consider potential trans-boundary impacts, in particular the impact to Canadian waters and ecosystems.”

Rom said it’s unusual for a foreign government to submit input on something like a mining lease renewal, but seeing as it has played a role in the past when it comes to protecting nature spaces in the shared region, she is hopeful that if the process to re-examine the mine in the area was to start again, the Canadian government would once more speak up to have its voice heard.