U.S. Govt. signs order banning mining in BWCA watershed for 20 years
ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - Biden administration moves to protect Boundary Waters wilderness in northern Minnesota from a proposed copper-nickel mine.
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but the Biden administration contends that Twin Metals Minnesota lost its rights last year, when the department rescinded a Trump administration decision to reinstate federal mineral rights leases that were critical to the project.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.
Congressman Pete Stauber (MN-08) released a statement on the Biden Administration’s decision.
“Today is an attack on our way of life. Joe Biden banned mining in 225,000 acres of Minnesota’s Iron Range, and locked up development of taconite, copper, nickel, cobalt, platinum-group elements, and more,” said Congressman Stauber.
“Unfortunately, this harm to our country and our future has become the norm, as this President’s goal is to put America last. Not even one month ago, Joe Biden signed an agreement to fund mining projects in Chinese-owned mines in the Congo, where over 40,000 children work as slaves in forced labor and inhumane conditions with no environmental protections. Meanwhile today’s mining ban nullifies a Project Labor Agreement with the local building and construction trade unions. America needs to develop our vast mineral wealth, right here at home, with high-wage, union protected jobs instead of continuing to send American taxpayer dollars to countries like the Congo that use child slave labor. The only winner here is China, as Joe Biden continues to hand our foreign adversaries every advantage possible. I can assure you that this Administration, from the President to the Forest Service, to the Interior Department, will answer for the pain they elected to cause my constituents today.”
“If Democrats were serious about developing renewable energy sources and breaking China’s stranglehold on the global market, they would be flinging open the doors to responsible mineral development here in the U.S.,” said House Committee on Natural Resources Chairman Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.). “We cannot have a future of renewable energy without minerals, period - not to mention their necessity to our defense systems, satellites, cellphones and virtually every other advanced technology. While Democrats play political ping pong with American industries, China and Russia are laughing straight to the bank. The administration’s decision to withdraw this mineral-rich area - blatantly targeting one of our country’s most promising mines - is short-sighted, foolish and completely unscientific. Unfortunately, President Biden doesn’t seem to mind if Minnesota mining communities and the entire American economy pay the price.”
Twin Metals Minnesota was also disappointed by the decision Thursday.
“Twin Metals Minnesota is deeply disappointed and stunned that the federal government has chosen to enact a 20-year moratorium on mining across a quarter million acres of land in northeast Minnesota. This region sits on top of one of the world’s largest deposits of critical minerals that are vital in meeting our nation’s goals to transition to a clean energy future, to create American jobs, to strengthen our national security and to bolster domestic supply chains. We believe our project plays a critical role in addressing all of these priorities, and we remain committed to enforcing Twin Metals’ rights,” says Twin Metals spokespeople.
Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.