Federal plan to study environmental impacts of mining near BWCA draws praise, scorn

Two men speak in front of a map.
DFL Rep. Jim Davnie speaks during a press conference alongside Friends of the Boundary Waters executive director Nick Knopf at a press conference inside the Friends of the Boundary Waters offices in St. Paul on Wednesday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Dave Seaton is co-owner of Hungry Jack Outfitters along the Gunflint Trail, one of several businesses and environmental groups fighting the proposed Twin Metals proposal. He says the health of his business and the local economy is directly tied to the health of the Boundary Waters.

"The Boundary Waters is the goose that lays our golden eggs,” he said. “There's little doubt that copper mining in this region will kill that goose."

Dave Seaton
Dave Seaton owns Hungry Jack Outfitters near the Gunflint Trail in northeastern Minnesota.
Tim Post | MPR News 2007

Seaton says his son wants to take over his business. But he's concerned about its viability if Twin Metals and other possible copper-nickel mines are allowed to open in the watershed of the Boundary Waters.

"Clean water really is more valuable than copper. And healthy forests really are more valuable than nickel. And the long-term sustainability of the region is what we need to be working for," he said.

Seaton was one of many people celebrating President Joe Biden’s administration's decision Wednesday to file an application for a "mineral withdrawal" on about 350 square miles of federal land south of the Boundary Waters. That process begins with an environmental study that will freeze all mining activity for two years.

The government will then use that study on the potential impacts of mining to decide whether to ban any new activity within the watershed of the Boundary Waters for 20 years.

Meanwhile, a chorus of business and labor groups are condemning the move from the Biden administration.

Mining supporters say copper and nickel and other minerals underground in northeastern Minnesota are vital to power the green economy that the Biden administration is pushing to transition to.

The mines could help provide the metals needed to make wind turbines, solar panels and other technologies, said Frank Ongaro, executive director of Mining Minnesota.

"You can't on one hand say there's a climate crisis and want clean energy and electric vehicles and at the same time attempt to lock out access to those very metals essential to achieve those goals. That's hypocrisy," he said.

Trees grow along the shoreline of the Kawishiwi River.
The shoreline of the Kawishiwi River near Ely where Twin Metals is proposing to build an underground copper-nickel mine.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News 2019

He says a mineral withdrawal would impact several companies exploring for copper, nickel and other precious metals in the area.

"This is about thousands of jobs and billions of dollars, not just one project."

Twin Metals is the one project that is furthest along in the area of the proposed mining ban. It's developing an underground copper-nickel mine proposal near Ely.

The Obama administration attempted to block Twin Metals five years ago when it revoked Twin Metals' mineral leases and launched a similar mineral withdrawal study.

But the Trump administration stopped that study before it was finished and returned Twin Metals' leases. Two years ago, Twin Metals submitted a mine plan that kickstarted a long environmental review and permitting process.

Mining advocates like Brian Hanson, chair of the group Jobs for Minnesotans, say the established process to determine whether mining can be done safely is to evaluate a specific proposal like Twin Metals.

Twin Metals public listening session
Members of the public during a listening session regarding Twin Metals in 2016 at the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News 2016

"To instead do a study that isn't based on a specific plan, it doesn't make sense,” he said. “We have a specific plan there. Let's follow the normal process that exists today and look at that plan and decide on that project."

But mineral withdrawals are also an established process. In 2018, for example, the Trump administration protected a 30,000-acre area in Montana on the edge of Yellowstone National Park from future mining activity.

Becky Rom, national chair of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, says she's confident Twin Metals will eventually be blocked.

"But what we have before us today is clearly a Biden Harris policy statement — that the Boundary Waters should be protected, hat sulfide or copper mining in the watershed of the Boundary Waters is inappropriate, that this is the wrong place for that kind of activity," said Rom.

It's unclear what impact the proposed mining ban would have on Twin Metals since it already holds two federal mineral leases. Rom's group is one of several challenging those leases in court. The Biden administration has asked for delays in those cases while it determines its position on the legality of the leases.

Meanwhile, the study on the proposed mining moratorium starts Thursday, with a 90-day period for the public to submit comments.

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