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The Twin Metals mining project near the Boundary Waters is probably dead

“Why would you risk this in an area where it could be so detrimental,” says Mike Dombeck, the only person ever to head both the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service.

We may well have heard the death knell this week for sulfide mining upstream from the Boundary Waters’ wild lakes and rivers.

Twin Metals Minnesota (TMM) certainly sees that prospect in the U.S. Forest Service’s announcement on Monday that the agency might not consent to renewal of two expired mineral leases that would allow TMM to mine for copper, nickel and other precious metals in the Superior National Forest, and will take public comments on the matter for 30 days beginning Sunday.

In a retort issued Tuesday, TMM said the announcement “suggests a disturbing predisposition or bias in opposition to granting renewal of TMM’s mineral leases, even before the agency conducts its announced public process.”

The company also objects to the public process, because it feels the Forest Service’s “general and arbitrary concerns about potential environmental impacts related to mining in the region” are being raised prematurely and inappropriately. It much prefers to have the leases renewed automatically and to postpone all environmental assessment until a detailed mining plan is ready for review.

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The Forest Service’s concerns may indeed be general — sweeping, you could say — but they are anything but arbitrary. In language I found unusually strong for such a document, the announcement lays them out like so:

The Forest Service is deeply concerned by the location of the leases within the same watershed as the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, and by the inherent risks associated with potential copper, nickel and other sulfide mining operations within that watershed. Those risks exist during all phases of mine development, implementation and long-term closure and remediation.

Potential impacts to water resources include changes in water quantity and quality, contamination from acid mine drainage, and seepage of tailings water, tailings basin failures and waste rock treatment locations.

“A final determination on consent has not been made,” the announcement said, and the ultimate decision on the leases is up to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which has authority over the underground minerals; the Forest Service gets a vote because it is responsible for the surface resources.

To better understand the procedural issues here — including TMM’s contention that environmental review is out of place — I thought I’d better check in with Mike Dombeck, the only person ever to head both the BLM (1994 to 1997) and the Forest Service (1997 to 2001).

I reached him Wednesday afternoon by phone in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, where he grew up and, after his federal service, returned to teach at the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point. I began by asking him if he, too, read the announcement to indicate that the Forest Service was inclined to reject the renewals. “Typically the language would be more neutral, yes,” he said. “What probably has happened is, the Forest Service has already received a lot of comments opposing this. And when you have the governor opposed, and Walter Mondale editorializing against … Still, the agency is required by law to go through a public comment period.

“Another thing that’s atypical is they’re expecting such high turnout [at a “listening session’ in Duluth on July 13] that they’re limiting comments to three minutes and using a lottery to allocate the time.”

Mike Dombeck

MinnPost: Given the substantial concerns already enumerated here, it seems rather unlikely that the public comment process will produce new information that would change the Forest Service’s thinking. Is that a fair assumption?

Mike Dombeck: Yes, I think that’s fair. But it’s a process they’re required to go through under NEPA [the National Environmental Protection Act of 1970], to be sure they’ve heard all the opinions that people want to give.

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MP: These leases were first granted in 1966, before NEPA required a review of impacts in mine siting decisions, and Twin Metals argues that it’s unusual and improper to consider those impacts before the mining plan is prepared. You’ve been at both BLM and the Forest Service is it somehow peculiar to consider environmental factors at the stage of granting a mineral lease?

MD: I would say not. Particularly when you have a high-value, highly visible area of high potential risk.

I mean, how many places in the West and all over the country have we killed with acid mine drainage, including a fair number of Superfund sites, like the pit at Butte, Montana. And then there’s the issue of whether we’re dealing with a mineral that’s very rare. Copper or nickel, well, there’s plenty of it around. Certainly not a shortage of it.

Speaking just as John Q. Citizen now: Why would you risk this in an area where it could be so detrimental, when there are so many other places around the country you can get the same thing, that are already leased or in production?

MP: Environmentalists often say, in rebuttal to arguments like TMM’s, that once a mining lease is granted, it carries certain presumptions that limit the government’s ability to just say no to a mine regulators can require that construction, operation and closure be done in certain ways, but they can no longer decide that any mining at all would be too dangerous. Is that a fair assessment?

MD: Yes, but it’s a two-way street. If you’re the company, and there’s a high probability of being told no, would you want to invest a significant amount of money in a detailed plan when there’s a high probability it would be money wasted?

If you’re not going to be able to do it, you’re better off knowing that right up front, so you can put your money and resources someplace else.

MP: And I guess avoid the sort of situation we saw at Bristol Bay in Alaska, with the EPA decision against the Pebble Mine?

MD: In a sense, yes, but there’s a big difference — that mining was on private lands. If there had been public lands involved, the project would never have gotten that far.

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At Bristol Bay the legal authority didn’t rest with a BLM, a Forest Service, a state agency, to move forward or not move forward in an extremely sensitive area, a salmon fishery that’s probably one of the best in the world — even Sen. Ted Stevens was opposed to the Pebble mine when he was alive.

So it wasn’t about protecting a national forest or a national park. It was a decision based on environmental quality rather than land use.

* * *

I didn’t plan to ask Dombeck for his views of U.S. mining practices in general, but we got there anyway:

The interesting thing with mining and I’ve dealt with all the resource values over the years, from logging to mining to the ranchers the miners sell these projects to communities based upon jobs. And they lead these communities into boom and bust cycles look at what’s happening in the Bakken formation. And of course the Iron Range is a prime example.

Logging can be the same way, except they tend to be longer cycles.

The mine goes in, they extract the mineral as fast as they can, they create local jobs, local communities build the infrastructure, the motels and restaurants and whatever else enjoy the benefits of it and what do they in 10 years when the mine’s played out?

We don’t think long-term. And we should.

I forget the number of miles, but something like 40 percent of the streams in the West are fishless because of acid mine drainage, or were.

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With hardrock mining, there’s no reclamation fund like there is with coal mining. We did reform the coal mining situation 20 or 30 years ago, putting aside money for mitigation, but that still doesn’t exist for hardrock mining.

So the public is still left holding the bag as a result of the 1872 mining law, which was written by miners for miners while the country was preoccupied with the Civil War and its aftermath.

Such an archaic law it’s almost inconceivable that it hasn’t been reformed in a meaningful way since 1872.