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US moves to protect Minnesota wilderness from planned mine

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The Biden administration moved Thursday to protect northeastern Minnesota’s pristine Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness from future mining, dealing a potentially fatal blow to a copper-nickel project.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland signed an order closing over 350 square miles (900 square kilometers) of the Superior National Forest, in the Rainy River Watershed around the town of Ely, to mineral and geothermal leasing for 20 years, the longest period the department can sequester the land without congressional approval.

The order is “subject to existing valid rights,” but the Biden administration contends that Twin Metals Minnesota lost its rights last year, when the department rescinded a Trump administration decision to reinstate federal mineral rights leases that were critical to the project. Twin Metals, which is owned by the Chilean mining giant Antofagasta, filed suit in August to try to reclaim those rights.

“Protecting a place like Boundary Waters is key to supporting the health of the watershed and its surrounding wildlife, upholding our Tribal trust and treaty responsibilities, and boosting the local recreation economy,” Haaland said in a statement. “With an eye toward protecting this special place for future generations, I have made this decision using the best available science and extensive public input.”

The proposed underground mine would be built southeast of Ely, near Birch Lake, which flows into the Boundary Waters. The project has been battered by shifting political winds. The Obama administration, in its final weeks, chose not to renew the two leases, which had dated back more than 50 years. The Trump administration reversed that decision and reinstated the leases. But the Biden administration canceled the leases last January after the U.S. Forest Service in October 2021 relaunched the review and public engagement process for the 20-year mining moratorium.

While the Biden administration last year committed itself to expanding domestic sources of critical minerals and metals for the clean energy economy, it made clear Thursday that it considers Boundary Waters to be a unique area worthy of special protections.

Twin Metals did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment. The company and its supporters say the project is critical for securing domestic sources of copper, nickel and other minerals needed for wind and solar power and electric vehicles. And they say the mine would create more than 750 high-wage mining jobs plus 1,500 spinoff jobs in the region.

Twin Metals says it can mine safely without generating acid mine drainage that the Biden administration and environmentalists say makes the $1.7 billion project an unacceptable risk to the wilderness. Twin Metals says its design would limit the exposure of the sulfide-bearing ore to the effects of air and water.

The 1,700 square mile (4,400 square kilometer) Boundary Waters Canoe Area is the most-visited federally designated wilderness area in the U.S. It draws more than 150,000 visitors from around the world who paddle its more than 1,200 miles (1,900 kilometers) of canoe routes and over 1,100 lakes. According to the Interior Department, it contributes over $17 million annually to the outdoor recreation and tourism economy in northeastern Minnesota. Three Ojibwe tribes exercise treaty rights in the area covered by the moratorium.

“I applaud Secretary Haaland’s decision to protect the long-term health of the Rainy River watershed, including the irreplaceable Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who oversees the Forest Service, said in the administration’s statement. “This landscape is an international resource renowned for its multitude of recreational opportunities and provides millions of visitors with unparalleled wilderness experiences.”

The order does not affect two other proposed copper-nickel projects in northeastern Minnesota — the PolyMet mine near Babbitt and Hoyt Lakes and the Talon Metals mine near Tamarack — which lie in different watersheds.