Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


Killing an opportunity to finally resolve the issue of mining near the BWCA

You kind of have to admire, if only grudgingly, the sly elegance of last Friday’s about-face on environmental review of prospective precious-metal mines at the edge of the Boundary Waters.

With a matched set of press releases, the U.S. Forest Service and the Interior Department scrapped a decision to conduct a thorough scientific analysis of potential damage from such mining — which has never been done anywhere without major harm, and would surely threaten this especially sensitive watershed.

The now-scrapped examination was of a form familiar to Americans; it’s the one that produces an environmental impact statement, or EIS. The process takes a long time and generates a lot of information; see, for example, the years of analysis and re-analysis over PolyMet Mining’s NorthMet project near Babbitt and Hoyt Lakes, in the Lake Superior watershed.

Which is as it ought to be, because an EIS is ordered only when a lot is at stake.

When not so much is at stake — if a proposed project is comparatively small and well understood, and its impacts are locally contained, but some harm is possible — then the law requires a much more cursory Environmental Assessment (EA).

Typically the main objective of an EA is to make sure that likely damage is being assessed accurately, not underestimated. Typically, too, eventual approval is a foregone conclusion. For example, EAs in the news this week concern a bridge replacement and a crude oil pipeline in Louisiana, expansion of a rail yard in the Chicago suburbs — that sort of thing.  

These projects aren’t necessarily good or benign, mind you. And they have their foes, which is why they were in the news.

A century of industrialization

But neither are they in the same league with, for example, the city-sized mining project that Twin Metals Minnesota has outlined conceptually for development of its mineral rights at Birch Lake, at the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA). Or additional projects by TMM and other players that the companies claim could add up to a century or more of digging, crushing and shipping ore in a vast industrialized band alongside this national treasure of wild lakes and woodlands.

Which is where Friday’s decision has placed them, with reasoning that can charitably be described as cute:

  • The agencies claim the question before them is not, as the original EIS order framed it, whether future mining activity would be impermissibly harmful in this area, and should therefore be blocked by “withdrawal” of 234,000 sensitive acres from portions of the Superior National Forest where mineral production is potentially allowable. (No mining is allowed within the BWCA, which contains a bit over 1 million of the Superior’s 3.9 million acres.)
  • Rather, it’s whether there would be significant negative impacts from a two-year moratorium on mining activity, begun last January when the EIS was ordered and the withdrawal formally proposed. Obviously the answer is no, but the feds followed the required process in giving citizens a chance to come up with some, which they did not.

The answer to that first question, however, seems quite likely to be yes, based on the whole of our national experience with this industry.

The American West, especially, is liberally pocked with mothballed or simply abandoned mines that have become perpetual and/or permanent sources of acid drainage and heavy-metals pollution to streams and groundwater.

Most of that harm is on landscapes that are steeper and drier than the Boundary Waters, whose wet and low-lying character only makes it more vulnerable.

Nevertheless, in a more than century of protecting the canoe country’s resources from one threat after another, the problem of mining has proved easy to kick down the road through wax-and-wane cycles of industry interest, with the waning periods predominant.

An opening for resolution arose in 2013 when TMM sought to renew lapsed leases on minerals at the Birch Lake site. Such leases often carry renewal rights that are automatic but not unlimited, and can change when reissued.

And, indeed, the leases held by TMM had carried such renewal rights from 1966 up till 2004, according to an analysis by the Interior Department that was issued in March 2016.

However, the 2004 leases did not include such rights. After TMM let them lapse, the analysis concluded, the feds had discretion to renew them or not — and, more important, to make that decision in light of modern environmental law, rather than the minimal standards in place when they were issued in 1966.

Renewals denied

In December 2016, as the Obama administration wound down, the departments of Interior (whose Bureau of Land Management administers the leasing) and Agriculture (which includes the Forest Service) issued their decision: no new leases, and a move toward withdrawing the 234,000 acres from mining activity for the next 20 years. (That’s the maximum term for withdrawal by administrative action; only Congress can make public land permanently off-limits.)

TMM threatened to sue, of course, and eventually did. Also eventually, and to nobody’s surprise, Ryan Zinke’s Interior Department decided to renew the leases after all. Sonny Perdue’s Forest Service — notwithstanding the secretary’s telling a confirmation hearing that EIS-level review of future mining was an important step in getting to the right decision — decided the abbreviated alternative of an EA would do just fine.

The outlook from here is grim, no question. The timetable, according to the Forest Service announcement, is to complete the EA by the end of 2018, and to reach a decision on the withdrawal next January, just before the mining moratorium ends.

Oh, and they’re taking another round of public comments, on the decision to scale back the review, through the end of this month; these can be submitted online here.  As of midafternoon yesterday, about 650 comments had come in, heavily against the change by my count — which will make no difference whatsoever.

I once asked TMM’s public relations guy, Bob McFarlin, if it wouldn’t be in his company’s interest to support a full, EIS-style review of mining’s overall appropriateness in the watershed before investing so heavily — some $400 million so far, according  to the company website — in a project that ultimately might fail to fly, given the fragility and national stature of the Boundary Waters.

All he would say is that the company fully supported the existing project-by-project review process and saw no need for another layer. The reality, I think, is that mining companies have long experience gaming the piecemeal process and the agencies that administer it, and don’t much worry about being denied their own sweet way.

For a brief while in 2016, though, that presumption looked suddenly and surprisingly shaky. It seemed possible that this longstanding conflict might finally be resolved.

But a new administration has put things back on the same old, bad track, headed for an ultimate resolution that probably won’t come for many years, almost certainly in court.

Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by joe smith on 02/01/2018 - 10:25 am.

    For the 10th time.

    There is a permitting process that any business has to go through. Polymet has been in this process for over 20 years (so much for your argument that its being rushed) and if they pass the process they get permits to mine, don’t pass the process, no permits. When Obama Interior Dept decides no mining, it’s a good and just decision (forget the permitting process), when Trumps Interior Dept decides to let the process proceed, it is of course bad. Let it play out according to the laws on the books and see if Polymet gets permitted.

    • Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 02/01/2018 - 11:39 am.

      I don’t see that Joe Smith understands the difference between an EA and an EIS, the more serious environmental review of proposed permitted action, despite Ron Meador’s clear explanation of the levels they address. Sadly, that represents not only a large portion of an ignorant public, but our ignorant Trump administration that thinks anything business wants, business should get. Quickly, and damn the consequences.

      It also seems clear that Joe–and many others–don’t have a clue about the kind of mining that is being proposed here, and how devastating it is to the land and water around it. Damage that will last forever, and way, way beyond the short century or less that this company will be in existence. Then taxpayers will have to pay for the awful damage they will have done.

  2. Submitted by John Eidel on 02/01/2018 - 10:47 am.

    BWCA mining

    The Boundary Waters is such a special place, and it is ours. It belongs to all of us. The idea that we would put it and its water at risk for 300 temporary jobs fills me with despair. Rangers don’t care; they want the jobs*. So do craven toadies like Rick Nolan. There is no reasoning with them. You can bring up the risks of copper/ nickel mining, point out the cyclical and temporary nature of the jobs, the devastation that this company and this mining process have wrought all over the word, point them to studies and articles,etc. and they just don’t care. At this point, I think it has more to do with sticking it to “Twin Cities/Washington Elites” than it does with the jobs. Well, if you want to stick it to us by poisoning your water and permanently degrading your landscape, I guess there isn’t much that we can do other than fight you in court. And vote.

  3. Submitted by joe smith on 02/01/2018 - 11:36 am.

    It also belongs to those who

    want mining. You have no more right to that land than a person who believes Polymet, if permitted, should be allowed to mine. Never quite understood that argument.

    • Submitted by Matt Haas on 02/01/2018 - 07:27 pm.

      This ain’t

      Polymet. Its what, 10 times bigger?

    • Submitted by John Eidel on 02/02/2018 - 08:20 am.

      Re: it also belongs

      It belongs to mining proponents as well, that is true. The difference is that mining proponents either won’t acknowledge the full danger to that collectively owned asset, sugar-coat that danger, or don’t care. If mining proponents cared about that asset to which they are co-owners, they would encourage the EAS to proceed.

    • Submitted by Bill Willy on 02/02/2018 - 01:43 pm.

      Minewanter Privilege

      First of all, “My compliments.” It’s rare when someone can sum up something so big and basic in so few words. I doubt anyone could put it more succinctly (and I should know, right?). I’d say that out of all your comments on this topic over the past few years, this one is your best because it reveals so much of what, I believe, is at the heart of the endless “circular” debate.

      You know I don’t agree with you at all, but still, I believe in “credit where credit is due” and, as far as that goes, from my perspective, “you’ve outdone yourself this time.”

      Okay . . . Enough of that. Except to say this is the near-perfect, probably unsurpassable kernel:

      “It belongs to those who want mining.”

      To which it’s impossible for me to not reply . . .

      Wow. Talk about entitlements!

      Those who want mining own the land.

      Those who want mining own the rock formations that have been where they are for billions of years.

      Those who want mining own the water on and under all of the land, from the mine sites to the processing plants to all points it flows, east, west, north and south, above and below ground, and if it happens to flow into those parts of the seamless river called Saint Louis, Rainy, Kawishiwi, Boundary Waters or Superior, well . . . they own that too.

      And those who want mining say, “Shut up, stand back and get out of the way unless you want to get hit and buried by the dirt and rock that will fly as soon as we have the piece of paper in our hand that says ‘Permit to Mine’ at the top!”

      I don’t know, Joe . . . I don’t know how many people actually “want mining,” but last I checked there were somewhere around 5,000 people who actually DO the mining on the Range and 5,400,000 other people in the state who might disagree with you about who (if anyone) owns “it.”

      But, to be fair and not take what you said totally out of context, you “qualified” it by adding that the people who “don’t want mining” have no more right to “it” than those who do, which says to me that those who don’t want mining have just as much say about what happens to our “shared natural resources” as those who do.

      Which takes me back to what I just said . . . There are at least five million more people in Minnesota who wouldn’t benefit from (copper) mining than there are who would.

      So let’s ask EVERYONE who lives in Minnesota what they think of the idea of the Swiss company, Glencore Xstrata ( and their Canadian “partners” at Polymet, digging up the headwaters of the St. Louis, taking the profits home with them and leaving 550 MILLION TONS of poison dust and rock behind for EVERYONE to deal with, forever.

      (In terms of Quick Fun Facts, 550 million tons would fill a coal train 24,000 miles long, which means the last car would wind up right in front of the engine if the track ran all the way around the planet. And, better yet, it means every Minnesotan could get 100 tons of the stuff so they could get a Big Tax Credit for taking care of it directly instead of depending on Big Government to take care of it for them. So, if copper mining gets approved, you and everyone else who wants to mine will need to be sure to let Polymet know where you want your share of the debris delivered.)

      And, while we’re at it, let’s ask EVERYONE who lives in Minnesota what they think of the Chilean company, Antofagasta ( and their “Twin Metals” idea to build a mine underNEATH the Boundary Waters (and leave most of THEIR poison rock laying there, ready and waiting for the cave-in or one of those “unanticipated side-flow geologic” cracks).

      Let’s ask everyone who lives in the state and see what THEY think about who owns “it” and what should or shouldn’t be done with “it.”

      How about that? How about a straight up, statewide referendum or Constitutional Amendment question on the 2020 ballot that lets Minnesotans weigh-in:

      ___ I approve of copper-nickel (“non-ferrous”) mining anywhere in Minnesota and vote for it to be allowed to happen now and anytime in the future

      ___ I disapprove of copper-nickel (“non-ferrous”) mining anywhere in Minnesota and vote for it to be banned forever

      Would you and those who want mining be okay with that?

      Or do you really believe the people who want to mine own “it” and don’t need permission from anyone other than the IRRRB and the DNR to do whatever they want with “it”?

      P.S. Came across this related “Quote of the Day” while looking up Glencore’s and Antofagasta’s web addresses . . . It made me wonder what, if anything, the term “ethical thinking” means to those who want to mine copper in Northeastern Minnesota . . . It would be interesting to know.

      “In the considered opinion of many ethical thinkers, any human with an ounce of morality would conclude that the risks of allowing amateur mining companies such as PolyMet and Twin Metals – and other similarly amoral, sociopathic and non-human corporations like Switzerland’s Glencore Xstrata or Chile’s Antofagasta – are too great. (Glencore and Antofagasta are the two major multinational mining corporations that control PolyMet and Twin Metals.)

      “The plans to open and operate sulfuric acid-producing copper mines in pristine watersheds that are just upstream and upwind from children and other living things should be shelved for the good of the planet. But somehow, the legislators who are often in bed with their corporate paymasters are quite willing to ignore the risks in favor of a few temporary jobs. The risks seem to be OK for conscienceless corporations and their investors, but they don’t live here.

      “States that surround the potentially poisoned Lake Superior and the other downstream Great Lakes should have a say in the issue. Bullying corporations, along with their co-opted friends in positions of power in state and national capitals are quite willing to risk permanent catastrophes such as Mt Polley.

      “They, being the sociopathic entities that they are, can’t be expected to act as ethical humans, especially when billions of dollars are involved.”

      Like I say, it would be interesting to know what those who want to mine think about the concept of “ethical thinking.” Is it real or is it just something “anti-mining” people made up?

      Or is it only something that applies when, say, the crazy neighbor nobody can stand poisons their family’s dog because, the neighbor claims, it wandered over the property line one too many times . . . or when radical environmentalists try to tell people what they can or can’t do with their own property?

  4. Submitted by Nancy Gibson on 02/01/2018 - 01:13 pm.

    sulfide mining

    The unemployment rate for St. Louis County is 4.4% according to our state officials (Dec. 2017). There is a big help wanted sign for welders as you depart Virginia, MN so there may be a need for some jobs but are taxpayers willing to subsidize these small number of mining jobs. In today’s other paper there was a story about robots being used to clean up toxic sludge from abandoned mines since it too dangerous for humans. Let’s remember that this whole range has only 1% grade of copper mineral deposits. For every pound of copper, Minnesota is left with 99 pounds of toxic waste rock emitting sulfuric acid into the only clean watershed left in Minnesota for centuries. The Minnesota County Geological Survey has not even mapped the groundwater in this region so underwater aquifers and drainage is unknown. The Polymet/Glencore mine is the lynchpin that will cascade into other foreign mines like the Antofagasto Twin Metals mine and next will be Teck. It will change the entire landscape of northeastern Minnesota. And then what happens to all of those tourism jobs and the resources that emblazon our Chamber sponsored brochures?

  5. Submitted by Mike Cole on 02/01/2018 - 01:22 pm.

    Twin Metals

    Over and over again we hear the same old tired rhetoric from the anti mining crowd. We are all doomed and the water is going to turn to toxic soup. If that is the case then prove it. Oh I forgot you couldn’t thats why the USFS determined that an EIS wasn’t warranted and an Environmental Assessment is.
    All along those of us on the pro mining side of this have said all we wanted was that the same policies and procedures be followed like PolyMet. That wasn’t good enough for the anti mining folks they tried and end run through both the BLM and USFS under Obama to circumvent those policies. Let the process work itself out. Twin Metals deserves the same chance as PolyMet.

  6. Submitted by Larry Johnson on 02/01/2018 - 04:14 pm.

    Do a little research on Glencore

    Polymet is just a shell company for Glencore. A simple search will reveal Glencore’s history of environmental disasters and anti labor practices. They will leave a trail destruction and pollution in their wake. Once the damage is done to the affected watersheds it can’t be undone. Polymet will declare bankruptcy after they get what they want and leave us holding the bag. This is how they operate.
    Why would be want to get in bed with this company? They can’t be trusted.
    I’m for clean water.

  7. Submitted by Mike martin on 02/01/2018 - 05:38 pm.

    copper nickel mining or shutdown solar and wind Industries

    For those who study things in depth; which most environmentalist don’t, know that you need lots of copper to support the solar and wind energy industries. The choice is clear. Option one. Mine copper in northern Minnesota. Option 2. Mine copper someplace else. Option 3 shut down the solar and wind Industries.

    Meader and the other environmentalists have clearly chosen to plead the Fifth Amendment about where a good place to mine copper is. Until environmentalists clearly state where they want copper mined they must also clearly state they want to shut down the solar and wind industries.

    You need four times more copper to generate electricity with wind and solar than you do burning fossil fuels. Which doesn’t include the copper you need to build additional high voltage transmission lines to move electricity from the middle of nowhere where wind turbine farms are to population centers. You need eight thousand pounds of copper for every large wind turbine.

  8. Submitted by Joe Musich on 02/01/2018 - 08:42 pm.

    The coupling of…

    300 jobs with the fact that even the copper industry which is much bigger then mining would gain more overall cost benefit from recycling make this new decision despicable. The industry is not pushing these mining efforts. Denial and stupidity is. But we’re are living in a world where there is a daily attack on truth and how it we arrive at it. The DFL representatives have yet to attach a G for green to their party identity. They seem to be doing better at representing the interests of the capitalists. But in the end once the reality of the tax bill kicks in individual families will not be able to travel to the BWCA anyway. Thanks Ron for bringing information to us all.

Leave a Reply