The federal government on Wednesday renewed mineral leases owned by Twin Metals Minnesota, moving the company closer to building a hotly debated copper-nickel mine near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA).
The Bureau of Land Management had signaled earlier it planned to renew the leases near Ely, but the decision officially completes a remarkable turn in fortune for Twin Metals since Barack Obama left the White House. Obama had rejected new mineral leases for Twin Metals in December of 2016, shortly before leaving office, and took other actions to stop or slow the mine plan.
The prospect of a copper-nickel mine on the edge of Minnesota’s most famous wilderness area has made it one of the most controversial natural resource projects in the country.
Environmental advocates and some hunting and fishing organizations warn of toxic runoff from the mining process spreading into BWCA waters. U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum of St. Paul, a DFLer who chairs a House committee overseeing the budgets of the Department of the Interior and the BLM, issued a statement Wednesday condemning the agency’s decision. She vowed to “do everything I can to fight back to protect this special place.”
But the promise of jobs has also attracted high-profile support for Twin Metals, including from President Donald Trump, who has campaigned on the issue in northern Minnesota. Joe Balash, the Interior’s assistant secretary for land and minerals management, said in a written statement the decision could help secure “critical mineral supplies” if a mine eventually meets environmental standards and opens.
“Mining strategic metals in the United States is beneficial to national security, national and local economies,” he said.
Why were the leases renewed, and why is it important?
To mine for copper and other metals in Superior National Forest, Twin Metals needs mineral leases from the federal government. It already owns leases from an agreement that dates back to 1966, which were renewed twice before.
But the Obama administration ended a pair of leases, saying the environmental risk of such a mine in the BWCA watershed was too great. Unlike iron ore mining, copper-nickel mining can result in heavy metals leaching into water.
Trump’s administration, however, argued the government didn’t have the legal power to block a third lease renewal and has worked to reverse Obama’s actions. The Trump administration also stopped a study launched by Obama that could have led to a 20-year moratorium on copper-nickel mining in the region.
First, the BLM under Trump reinstated the two mineral leases owned by Twin Metals. Now it has renewed them, a crucial step for the company to build a mine. Twin Metals is owned by Chilean mining giant Antofagasta.
The feds did say they imposed some new terms on the leases in the aim of environmental protection, such as banning strip mining or using “open pit mining methods.” Twin Metals intends to build an underground mine.
Does this mean the mine can be built?
Not yet. Twin Metals still has a list of federal and state permits to earn before it can open. The company must submit a formal mine plan to the BLM and Minnesota regulators. From there, it will undergo environmental studies and be subject to other scrutiny, although the strength and rigor of the process has been questioned by environmental advocates.
Twin Metals plans to offer a mine proposal to state and federal regulators “in the coming months,” says a company news release issued Wednesday.
PolyMet, an open-pit copper-nickel mine proposed near Hoyt Lakes, took about 15 years to clear the state permitting process. If built, PolyMet would be the first mine of its kind in the state.
While PolyMet has drawn outrage from some who warn it would pollute Lake Superior and the St. Louis River watershed, the Twin Metals plan has been even more contentious because of its proximity to the Boundary Waters. McCollum has blasted the Trump administration for reversing the Obama-era decisions, and past Forest Service officials have said risking contamination of the Rainy River watershed and the BWCA is an unacceptable option.
The federal government is also facing lawsuits over its decision to reinstate the Twin Metals leases.
While DFL Gov. Tim Walz has expressed some reservation over Twin Metals in the past, state regulators at the Department of Natural Resources and elsewhere have been cautious not to judge the potential mine before a plan is submitted.
Then why is this such a big deal?
The Twin Metals mine has already been a potent political issue, one that embodies starkly different approaches to the use of public lands. Trump’s government has worked to boost oil and gas drilling across the West and championed jobs that natural resource extraction brings to rural areas. In the process, Republicans have won over some voters that traditionally sided with labor-friendly Democrats.
Democrats have been more divided on such issues, but many have criticized the harm to wildlife, habitat, tourism and the environment those industries can bring. Montana’s Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock launched his campaign this week with a video of him standing at the notorious Berkeley pit in Butte, a toxic pond of remnants from an open-pit copper-nickel mine that closed in 1982.
As Twin Metals inches toward reality, the proposal is likely to become an even larger and more divisive political issue.
U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber, a freshman Republican from the 8th Congressional District in northern Minnesota, joined Balash as the administration signed the leases. So did 6th District Republican Tom Emmer, who is chairman of the National Republican Campaign Committee, which works to elect Republicans to the U.S. House. In statements, they both said mining could be done without harming the environment.
“In northern Minnesota, mining is our past, our present, and our future,” Stauber said. “With 21st century technology, we can responsibly develop the resources needed for the modern world and unleash the economic engine of northeastern Minnesota.”
McCollum aside, top DFLers in the state were cautious in their response. A spokeswoman for Sen. Tina Smith said the Democrat was “reviewing the announcement” and “believes it’s important that we follow an open and transparent process, with Minnesotans’ voices being heard as a key part of that process.”
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who is running a presidential campaign with a focus on winning back blue-collar voters in the Midwest whom Trump won in 2016, did not respond to an email sent to her Senate media office.
Teddy Tschann, a spokesman for Walz, said in an email that “like many Minnesotans, the Boundary Waters hold a special place in Governor Walz’s heart.”
“In order for any mining project to move forward, it would need to meet strict environmental standards that include a significant and transparent public process,” Tschann said. “This is especially important for a project that is located so close to the Boundary Waters.”