Conservation groups laud Minnesota mine lease decision

By Ken Kellar
Staff writer

Conservation groups in the United States are celebrating a victory for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) Wilderness following an announcement by the Biden administration last week.

On Wednesday, January 26, Department of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced it was revoking two federal mining leases that had been issued to Twin Metals Minnesota, thus at least temporarily halting the construction of their planned sulfide-ore copper mine on the boundaries of the protected area. Critics of the planned mine argued the project could not be guaranteed to negatively impact the ecology of the region, pointing out that contaminants from the sulfide-ore process could easily lead to devastating polluting of the watershed, which would flow into and impact the waters of Voyageurs National Park, Quetico Provincial Park, and further onwards into the Rainy Lake and Rainy River.

In the announcement from the Department of Interior, Haaland noted the mining leases had been improperly reinstated by the Trump administration in 2019.

“The Department of the Interior takes seriously our obligations to steward public lands and waters on behalf of all Americans. We must be consistent in how we apply lease terms to ensure that no lessee receives special treatment,” Haaland said in the statement. 

“After a careful legal review, we found the leases were improperly renewed in violation of applicable statutes and regulations, and we are taking action to cancel them.”

Following the announcement, supporters of the cancellation and conservation groups including Save the Boundary Waters held a webconference celebrating the decision and marking out what their next steps could be. Save the Boundary Waters campaign national chair Becky Rom led the conference and stressed the significance of the Biden administration cancelling the leases, noting the renewal of the leases violated a number of regulations, including Bureau of Land Management (BLM) mining regulations, the U.S. National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the law that grants the U.S. Forest Service the authority to consent or withhold consent to all mining decisions in Minnesota’s national forests.

“In 2016, the Forest Service issued its determination to withhold consent to the renewal of the Twin Metals mineral leases,” Rom said.

“The Forest Service decision still stands and is operative today. The 2019 renewal of these leases by the Trump administration ignored the withholding of consent by the Forest Service. For all of these reasons, today the Department of Interior cancelled the two unlawful mineral leases.”

Rom said the Forest Service and BLM will now be conducting a “science-based environmental analysis to evaluate the impacts of sulfide-ore copper mining on the important natural and cultural resources of the Boundary Waters.”

U.S. Congresswoman Betty McCollum, the representative for Minnesota’s 4th congressional district, echoed Rom’s statements, claiming the decision is “a victory” for the Boundary Waters and those who visit it each year and will continue to do so in the future.

“The Interior’s decision rejects the deeply flawed process of the Trump administration that imposed these leases on a fragile watershed based on politics, not science,” McCollum said.

“The Trump administration’s stripped the U.S. Forest Service of their right, as the managers of our public lands and waters, to reject the renewal of Twin Metals sulfide-ore mining leases. These Trump leases threatened to pollute the precious and irreplaceable waters, the pristine waters, and 1.1-million acre BWCA. I fought to hold the Trump administration accountable for four years as they continually ignored proper protocol for making decisions on mining within this watershed.”

McCollum also stressed that she will be be pursuing legislation called the “Boundary Waters Pollution and Prevention Act” with a goal of permanently protect the BWCA watershed from copper ore mining

“The Boundary Waters Wilderness must be protected for all Americans forever,” McCollum said.”

Not everyone in Minnesota sees the decision as a victory, however. U.S. Congressman Pete Stauber, the representative for Minnesota’s 8th congressional district, criticized the Biden administration for their decision, saying it will remove high paying jobs from the region, and outsource mine work to countries who may have less ethical standards.

““The Biden Administration’s announcement today canceling these long-standing mineral leases will have devastating impacts on northern Minnesota and our nation,” Stauber said. 

“Let me be clear: President Biden is choosing to ban mining. He’s choosing foreign sourced minerals, including mines that use child slave labor, over our own domestic, union workforce that follows the best labor and environmental standards in the world. The Biden Administration doesn’t have a plan for mineral independence. On one hand, they want massive taxpayer investments in electric vehicles, and on the other, they refuse to allow domestic mineral production as demand continues to skyrocket. Instead, this Administration has decided to leave American, blue-collar workers behind and bow to pressure from radicals who prefer to rely on foreign adversarial nations for these minerals.”

For its part, Twin Metals Minnesota released a statement on the decision, saying they are confident in their ability to safely operate the mine without risk of contaminating the surrounding watershed.

“Our proposal, submitted more than two years ago to state and federal agencies, was the culmination of more than a decade of engineering, hydrogeological, environmental and engagement work that maximize environmental protection,” Twin Metals said in their release. 

“We are confident that a full environmental review will show that the science behind this modern mine will prove that we can advance this project safely under the highest of standards. Twin Metals’ mineral leases were first issued in 1966 and have been held in good standing spanning 11 presidential administrations. We remain steadfast in defending those rights and advancing our model mining project.”