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The mining industry has taken the reins on environmental regulations

Far too often, we have seen regulators cut corners and skew the process in favor of the multibillion-dollar conglomerates that own Twin Metal and PolyMet, Antofagasta and Glencore.

Rock samples taken by Twin Metals at their warehouse in Ely for research into the minerals the company hopes to mine.
Rock samples taken by Twin Metals at their warehouse in Ely for research into the minerals the company hopes to mine.
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein

Supporters of copper-sulfide mining often say something like, “Let the process play out” or “We have strict environmental laws” or “Let the mine go through a full environmental review.” These are clever talking points that paint a picture of a patient, reasonable industry willing to wait for the facts to come in and committed to adhering to environmental safeguards.

Clever, but it’s a ruse.

A book could be written about how the industry has continually put its finger on the scale and the effort it has put into getting around regulations.

It’s well known that the Trump administration has done enormous favors for Antofagasta, the Chilean-owned mining company behind Twin Metals, the proposed copper-sulfide mine at the edge of the Boundary Waters. Not only did the administration resurrect expired mineral leases, effectively breathing new life into this controversial project, but it’s becoming more apparent that federal agencies have allowed Twin Metals to set the terms.

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Several weeks ago, Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, along with a coalition of organizations and businesses, sued the Trump administration over its illegal renewal of Twin Metals’ mineral leases.

A cornerstone of our case is that the administration violated the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) when it decided not to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the lease renewals. Instead, they completed a much shorter, much more watered-down study known as an Environmental Assessment (EA).

This might sound like confusing regulatory jargon, but it has enormous consequences.

An EIS is required for an action that would significantly affect the human environment, like an industrial copper-sulfide mine. An EA merely determines if there is a potential for significant environmental effects. This EA was particularly lax, as it did not evaluate the impacts of Twin Metals’ proposed mine, or consider ways to reduce pollution and the overall environmental impacts of the mine.

This was a rubberstamp for building a type of mine with a dismal environmental record that would bring acid mine drainage and mercury contamination to the doorstep of the pristine Boundary Waters.

Chris Knopf
Chris Knopf
This was what Twin Metals wanted.

We know this because, last week, documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request revealed that Twin Metals representatives lobbied Trump administration officials for it. In hopes of skipping an environmental review altogether, Twin Metals sought a Categorical Exclusion. Knowing such a favor was a long shot, it then said that it would like a “limited EA” instead.

Twin Metals was on a schedule and wanted the review to be done “within the next year” in order to release its Mine Plan of Operation.

Twin Metals got what it asked for.

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It appears that Twin Metals was able to work with regulators, and work around the law to avoid a full EIS.

That is, Twin Metals set the scope and the calendar of the regulatory process.

The problem is deeper than just the Trump administration. In Minnesota, we have seen how cozy state regulators have been with PolyMet, the other proposed copper-sulfide mine in Minnesota that is owned by the Swiss mega-conglomerate, Glencore.

Louis Galdieri
Louis Galdieri
Courts have found that the permitting process followed by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) for PolyMet was so faulty, so full of errors and blind spots that they threw out PolyMet’s permits.

Both DNR and MPCA have continually fought against those who have raised concerns about the lax, industry-friendly terms in PolyMet’s permits. Even after the courts stepped in, these agencies have shown no appetite to address the problems in these permits. Instead, these state agencies are using taxpayer dollars to team up with PolyMet’s lawyers to defend their faulty permits by appealing to the Minnesota Supreme Court.

Minnesotans like to think we have the strongest environmental protections in the country, that there are safeguards in place to protect our clean water.

On both a federal and state level, there is ample evidence that agencies are treating Twin Metals and PolyMet as if they are clients. Far too often, we have seen regulators cut corners and skew the process in favor of the multibillion-dollar conglomerates that own Twin Metal and PolyMet, Antofagasta and Glencore.

It’s hard to imagine that many believe this is the proper role of our regulatory agencies. Minnesotans and Americans from across our country who enjoy our clean waters deserve and must demand better.

Chris Knopf is the executive director of Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness. Louis Galdieri is a documentary filmmaker living in New York City whose FOIA requests have unearthed hundreds of documents related to Twin Metals.

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