The Biden administration on Wednesday canceled two federal mining leases for the Twin Metals copper-nickel mine project in northern Minnesota, likely killing a project widely condemned for being too close to the pristine Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
The huge underground mine would have tapped large reserves of copper and nickel – minerals essential to a low-carbon economy – but also posed serious risks of contaminating the many waters around it with sulphide and metals. heavy toxic. Polls showed that many Minnesotans did not favor creating an industrial operation at the gateway to the nation’s most visited wilderness.
The boreal backcountry covers over a million acres, a maze of forested lakes and streams and wetlands where motorboats are not permitted.
The US Department of the Interior issued its legal decision on Wednesday. Two lawsuits challenging the legality of mining leases in Washington, DC, the courts are likely to be dismissed. The two mining leases were essential for Twin Metals, a subsidiary of Chilean copper mining giant Antofagasta, to develop the mine – its first major effort outside Chile.
“The Department of the Interior takes seriously our obligations to manage public lands and waters on behalf of all Americans. We must be consistent in how we enforce tenancy terms to ensure that no tenant benefits from ‘special treatment,’ Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in a statement. Release. “After careful legal review, we found that the leases had been improperly renewed in violation of applicable laws and regulations, and we are taking steps to cancel them.”
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), set to begin an environmental review of the mine, said it is reviewing the decision.
“Today’s federal action raises significant questions about the feasibility of the Twin Metals project as proposed,” the DNR said in a statement.
Twin Metals said the decision was politically motivated and promised to fight.
“The federal government‘s reversal of stance on the mining leases that Twin Metals Minnesota and its predecessor companies had held for more than 50 years is disappointing, but not surprising given the series of actions the administration has taken in an attempt to close the door to copper – nickel mining in northeast Minnesota,” the company said in a statement. “We will challenge this attempt to stop our project and defend our valid existing mineral rights. We hope to prevail.”
Brian Hanson, president of Jobs for Minnesotans, a pro-mining coalition of business groups and unions, called the decision “disheartening” and an attack on northeast Minnesota.
“It doesn’t make sense to make this kind of decision in the face of a country that has to deal with climate change and needs strategic minerals to do so,” he said. “These are jobs. These are our livelihoods.”
The issue of opening Minnesota up to hard rock mining – which is the extraction of things other than iron ore – has opened up deep divisions in the state, as reflected in the congressional delegation from the Minnesota.
Republican Rep. Pete Stauber, a vocal mining advocate, accused President Joe Biden of playing politics with mining.
“We are not going to allow this administration or any other administration to stop mining in northeast Minnesota,” Stauber said. “It’s a big part of our economy. It brings well-paying jobs to our families and the workforce here is second to none.”
Delighted environmental groups hailed the decision as a victory for the scientific, aquatic and Range communities.
Becky Rom, national chair of the Campaign to Save Boundary Waters, called the decision “a return to the rule of law”. The region’s fragile ecosystem needs more permanent protections, she said. “We think it’s time for Twin Metals to move on, to go back to Chile.”
Chris Knopf, manager of the Friends of The Boundary Waters Wilderness, noted that the victory goes to the permit opener to enter the wilderness: “It’s a big victory on a day when everyone gets their permit to celebrate the clean water and discover the wild nature. .”
Democratic Rep. Betty McCollum, an outspoken opponent of the Twin Metals mine, released a statement hailing the cancellation as “a rejection of the deeply flawed and politically motivated process under the Trump administration and a victory for sound science and the protection of ‘a precious and irreplaceable natural resource.’
Outfitters in Ely, a former mining town and jumping off point for Boundary Waters, were furiously processing permit applications on Wednesday when news of Twin Metals broke.
Jason Zabokrtsky, owner of the Ely Outfitting Company, said demand for overnight permits for boundary waters had skyrocketed after the US Forest Service recently reduced the number available.
“It created what feels a bit like a frenzy,” he said.
He said the cancellation was great news, but he didn’t have time to stop and think about it: “I have so many texts and emails and I don’t have any looked none.”
“I think Boundary Waters is a real engine for our regional economy,” he said. “A Twin Metals mine puts all of that at risk.”
Ely himself is “usually just divided,” Zabokrtsky said.
The copper-nickel mine that Twin Metals wants to build would be located about 15 miles southeast of Ely, near Lake Birch and the South Kawishiwi River. The company is early in the regulatory process, but has been building the plan for years and has built a modern headquarters in Ely. He hoped the mine would be operational by 2030.
Its two hard rock mining leases were first granted in 1966 to International Nickel Co. Inc., the predecessor of Twin Metals Minnesota. They are renewed every 10 years.
But in 2016, under the Obama administration, the Forest Service decided it would not consent to lease renewals because of the threat copper mining posed to the area. Twin Metals sued.
In 2018, under the Trump administration, Twin Metals’ leases were reinstated. Further litigation ensued.
The Biden administration signaled another shift in October when it announced it was seeking a 20-year moratorium on mining on more than 200,000 acres of federal lands near boundary waters. The Forest Service is expected to complete its environmental analysis by June. Haaland will likely make the final call by the end of the year.
On the legislative front, McCollum sponsored a bill to ban hard rock mining near boundary waters. There is a complementary bill at the state level, where there are other legislative efforts to restrict copper mining.
The DNR is reviewing the adequacy of Minnesota’s rules for siting hard rock mines.