U.S. federal judge pauses lawsuit to allow review of Boundary Waters area mining leases

By Ken Kellar
Local Journalism Initiative reporter

It’s a win – if only a temporary one – for those who are fighting to keep northern Minnesota and the Rainy River Watershed Basin’s waters free from polluting mine by-products.

In a release published on March 22, 2021, which is also recognized as World Water Day, the Save The Boundary Waters campaign announced that the Biden administration had placed a 90-day stay of proceedings on a lawsuit that had challenged the Trump administration’s 2019 decision to renew two federal mining leases that are critical to a proposed sulfide-ore copper mine located near Ely, Minn.

The mine site is hotly contested by environmental protection groups like the Save the Boundary Waters campaign, as they say sulfide-ore copper mines have a potential to leach heavy metals that are created as byproducts of the mining and refining process into nearby water sources, potentially contaminating those waters for years. Many of the lakes and rivers located near Ely drain directly into Rainy Lake and Rainy River, meaning any potential pollutants would directly impact waters on the Canadian side of the border.

The campaign has been fighting not only to cancel the mining leases in the area of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, but also to have the area permanently protected from mining efforts in the future.

According to the motion granting the stay, provided to the Times by the Save The Boundary Water Campaign, the federal defendants in the case, at this time Secretary of the Interior Debra Halland, noted the stay is “to allow senior officials at the Department of the Interior and Department of Agriculture to review the government’s position” in the matter of the mineral leases. Acting Assistant Attorney General Jean Williams, who is listed in the motion as an attorney for the federal defendants, noted that the 90 day timeframe was necessary because of the intricacies of the case at hand.

“A stay of 90 days is appropriate due to the complexity of the decisions challenged and the long history of the leases, going back over 60 years,” Williams wrote.

“A 90-day stay is also appropriate to allow new decision makers at the agencies to balance review of this matter with the ongoing review of other agency actions in accordance with President Biden’s Executive Order 13990, Protecting Public Health and the Environment and Restoring Science to Tackle the Climate Crisis.”

In their release announcing the pause, Save the Boundary Waters campaign executive director Tom Landwehr celebrated the decision, noting it is a “hopeful sign for everyone who loves the clean water of the Boundary Waters.”

“The clean water of the Wilderness is a priceless Minnesota asset, and now is the time to finally permanently protect this special place for future generations,” Landwher continued.

While Haaland was only sworn into office on March 16 of this year and the lawsuit was filed by the plaintiffs against the previous administration, she is automatically substituted in as the defendant according to federal rules. Haaland’s appointment earlier this month was also lauded by the Save the Boundary Waters campaign, who called it “a historic moment for our nation.”

“As the first Indigenous cabinet Secretary, Rep. Haaland will play a pivotal role in healing the wounds suffered by Tribal communities and ensure their voices are heard in the management of our shared public lands,” the campaign said in a March 16 press release.

“Rep. Haaland has a stellar bipartisan record of fighting for science, climate action, and the protection of iconic landscapes, critical cultural sites, wildlife, oceans, rivers, lakes and streams.”

As much as the stay is being seen as a victory, the decision is not finalized and not permanent. While U.S. President Biden campaigned on a pro-science platform, he also signed an executive order that looks to boost electric vehicle battery supplies, which means that the American auto industry needs copper and nickel, like what can be mined in northern Minnesota, to create a domestic-sourced product for their electric vehicles.

However, in a separate release from the campaign, Landwher said he believes that once the government completes a thorough environmental study, something that U.S. Senator Tina Smith called for in a letter dated March 26, 2021 addressed to Haaland and USDA Secretary Thomas Vilsack, the decision to halt mining in the area will be a natural conclusion.

“Senator Tina Smith’s support for protecting this priceless natural wonder and the thousands of jobs that depend on it is tremendous news for not just Minnesotans, but for the thousands upon thousands of Americans who love this special place,” Landwher said.

“We believe this science-based environmental assessment will show decision-makers the Boundary Waters should be protected. This is a critical step on the path to permanent protection.”

Twin Metals Minnesota, the owners of the proposed mine project under Chilean mining corporation Antofagasta, released their own statement in response to Sen. Smith’s letter, saying that the additional study she called for will “undermine trust in science and our regulatory system and will have a chilling effect on investment in Minnesota’s rural economies.”

“Twin Metals is proposing a modern underground mine that will use the best available technologies, have minimal surface impact, and ensure three things: no acid rock drainage, no discharge of process water and no toxic waste,” the release said.

“We expect the environmental review process to confirm what over $450 million in investment and scientific research has shown. All of that data will be available to the regulatory agencies, tribal governments and the public as we submit volumes of information this year to support the environmental review process.”

The 90-day stay of proceedings will end on June 21, 2021.