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Feds renew Twin Metals’ mineral leases: What it means for the company’s proposed copper-nickel mine near the BWCA

Office of Rep. Pete Stauber
Reps. Tom Emmer and Pete Stauber watch as federal officials renew mineral leases for Twin Metals.

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.

Twin Metals
Twin Metals Minnesota
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.”

Comments (21)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 05/16/2019 - 09:28 am.

    “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.”

    I’ve no doubt that mining strategic metals in the U.S. is beneficial to national security and local and regional economies. What I’ve yet to see is any evidence that the need for these “strategic metals” is “critical.” The mining companies themselves are foreign-owned, so if there’s some strategic importance to the proposed mines, why is the Trump administration – or any administration – allowing that strategic resource to be exploited for a foreign entity. Further, I also not seen a convincing justification on the basis of “jobs.” A few hundred miners will be employed in a dangerous occupation that, in a generation, will be almost entirely gone, with the miners replaced by robots which work harder, don’t need time off, don’t file lawsuits when they’re damaged, etc. The potential for environmental catastrophe is significant, a catastrophe that would eliminate far more jobs from the area as there will be little need or desire for a “hospitality” or “outdoor” industry in an area so polluted that few people outside of scientific inquiry will want to visit.

    “…Unlike iron ore mining, copper-nickel mining can result in heavy metals leaching into water.” Not only CAN such mining result in heavy metals leaching into water, it’s my understanding that in every single case, without exception, such heavy metal pollution of groundwater HAS, in fact, occurred.

    Against that we have promises from an industry famous for reneging on promises, and with a history of simply locking the doors and walking away when presented with the very high costs of mitigation and cleanup when the inevitable failure occurs. More often than not, the corporate entity declares bankruptcy, and no one in authority is held accountable (i.e., imprisoned) for the economic and environmental carnage left behind.

    The risks, and the funneling of profits to a foreign company, might be justified if this were the only place on the planet where such resources could be acquired, and their criticality to the nation’s defense could be demonstrated. Neither of those seem to be true – or at least neither has been demonstrated to the public that will be affected by the failure of oversight that has characterized such ventures in the past.

  2. Submitted by David Lundeen on 05/16/2019 - 09:34 am.

    This is a contemptible action by the administration. Any process to ensure voters have a voice in this issue have been nullified. What’s worse is that javanka lease a house in DC from the Chilean owner of Twin Metals. This smacks of back room dealing, and self-enrichment in contradiction to the oath of office he swore.

    This is government run socialism at it’s worst. Assistance for the rich, and then taxpayer funded bailouts and cleanups when the mine goes bad.

  3. Submitted by Phyllis Kahn on 05/16/2019 - 12:35 pm.

    I have continuously stated that one solution might be to require a lease to require a bond from a reputable bonding company for cleanup after closing or in case of an accident. in previous cases the financial backer went broke at the same time as the company. if they can’t get a bond or if it is prohibitively expensive that says something important about the project.

  4. Submitted by joe smith on 05/16/2019 - 02:00 pm.

    When they pass the permitting process, by law, they start mining. This is the time when all the “mining experts” usually say “ you can’t mine without ruining the environment”. 2019 mining regulations are much different than 1930’s, 40’s & 50’s regulations.
    The not in my backyard argument reminds me of the person who protests his neighbor building a house (with proper permits of course) that blocks his view of the sunset. No legal argument but man they are passionate about imposing their anger on the neighbor.

    • Submitted by David Lundeen on 05/16/2019 - 02:18 pm.

      Your proximity to the mine does not give you greater claim to the area. This is federal public land, thus proximity is no legitimate claim.

      • Submitted by joe smith on 05/16/2019 - 04:54 pm.

        The Federal Government shouldn’t own 1 acre of any States land. That is a discussion for another time. Living up here for 6+ decades doesn’t give me any more right to the land but I have seen mining, which was supposed to ruin the Range, help the area not hurt it. For you City guys who never come up here, there are hundreds of square miles, not acres but miles, of wilderness. I hunt grouse on an old mine site, lots of birds. The mining industry hasn’t ruined our area and with all the over site in 2019, Polymet/Twin Metals won’t either.

        • Submitted by Brian Nelson on 05/16/2019 - 06:17 pm.

          Joe, you always seem to equate taconite mining with sulfide mining. Again, I how does the history of iron/taconite mining assure the success (from an environmental standpoint) of sulfide mining?

          Next, since you hunt on an old mine site and have expertise in this matter, can you confirm that mining actually seems to increase biodiversity? For instance, might one find more rare flora and fauna on an old mine site than on a site that is undisturbed?

        • Submitted by David Lundeen on 05/17/2019 - 07:21 am.

          You’re wrong on every level. First, I do visit northern Minnesota quite often, and I used to live there. Also, as a taxpayer, it’s not advantageous to or anyone else for my tax dollars to support federal lands, then those lands are given to a mining company for which I’ll receive no benefit.

          It’s a good thing the federal government owns land. As a hunter you should support that. Try hunting or fishing in Europe sometime. Vast tracts of public land aren’t available as they here.

          • Submitted by joe smith on 05/17/2019 - 02:55 pm.

            Can’t hunt on some Federal land can however hunt on most State land. The States should own any land that needs protection, Federal Government has no right to come to the individual States and take their land. The more States rights the better. The less the Federal Government has their fingers in States rights also for the better.

            • Submitted by David Lundeen on 05/17/2019 - 05:48 pm.

              Oh jeez, the irony. The states rights argument is without merit for so many reasons. First, look at the Republicans in power now. They want to invalidate all state’s rights they don’t agree with. The biggest example is mpg standards in California. They were all about state’s rights though in the previous administration.

              Second, what passes for modern ‘conservatism’ actually prefers a stronger federal government. Reagan, and good followers, are frauds in this regard.

              Lastly, States rights was used to legitimize the worthless cause a group of people have ever fought for in the history of the world – slavery.

  5. Submitted by Mike Cole on 05/16/2019 - 02:01 pm.

    You brought up the Berkley Pit here something evidently you don’t know about that. and Governor Steve Bullock is anti mining on top of that and evidently not to bright for trying to use Berkley as some kind of example. Phyllis Kahn the state of Minnesota already requires financial assurances before a new mine can open in Minnesota. Theses assurances take care of reclamation after the mine closes if the company goes out of business. David Lundeen voters will have all kinds of chances to voice their opinions on Twin Metals. There will be comment periods on the EIS , mine plan and any applicable permits required for the mine. Do some checking on the NEPA process before making such a statement. This project has a long way to go before they start mining stop trying to circumvent the process.

    • Submitted by David Lundeen on 05/16/2019 - 02:50 pm.

      I suggest you take an objective evaluation of the Interior Department under Ryan Zinke. They willingly and purposefully ignored commentary periods in favor of corporate interests. The statements by Sonny Perdue exhibit the same content for commentary periods and other forms of public input. There is clear contempt for democracy in their actions, and no transparency either. Why else would they try to expedite every step and limit public input? I take exception to your claim that I, and many others, have a chance to share our voices when the facts suggest otherwise.

    • Submitted by David Lundeen on 05/16/2019 - 02:54 pm.

      Also, my comment was as much about the cronyism in the current administration. So much for draining the swamp. Please offer a cogent argument against my point next time.

    • Submitted by Brian Nelson on 05/16/2019 - 06:26 pm.

      Mike, I am interested in the point you made on financial assurance: …the state of Minnesota already requires financial assurances before a new mine can open in Minnesota. Theses assurances take care of reclamation after the mine closes if the company goes out of business.

      A few days ago an article on this site had stated this concerning PolyMet and financial assurance:

      “The DNR may have gotten the large headline producing the financial assurance number it wanted, but PolyMet won on the terms. The state is allowing PolyMet to pay itself and its investors first before setting aside cash for environmental cleanup. Instead of cash up front to fund the trust fund, PolyMet persuaded the DNR to rely on complex financial instruments such as surety bonds and irrevocable letters of credit to cover environmental liabilities, without determining (or asking) banks or insurance companies if this is possible.

      The state’s own independent mining experts, Emmons and Olivier Resources Inc., claim such instruments would be “very difficult” for PolyMet to obtain because it is a “small and new company.” The first nine years of operation are the most profitable and also create the greatest environmental liability, estimated to be $558 million. PolyMet projects the project to produce $1.393 billion in after-tax cash flow during the first nine years. But only $28 million of this is set aside into the financial assurance trust fund to protect the state. The rest of the potential billion-dollar liability, over the life of the mine, is to be covered by said surety bonds and irrevocable letters of credit. The Minnesota taxpayer would be left holding the bag should anything go wrong. A wise NFL player requires guaranteed cash up front, and so should the state.”

      Mike, can you please clarify your point regarding the likelihood that financial assurance will be adequate for these mines when they close and reclamation begins?

    • Submitted by Phyllis Kahn on 05/16/2019 - 07:15 pm.

      Financial assurance is not the same as a bond. Threw are cases (WI) where the financial assurance company goes belly up along with the mining company.

  6. Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 05/16/2019 - 05:39 pm.

    What is it called when someone serves foreign powers that act against the general welfare of America?

    MAGA in this context = Making America Grovel Again

    Bow down to your new foreign lords, Patriots.

  7. Submitted by Charles Thompson on 05/16/2019 - 11:07 pm.

    Joe – Iron mining was started by a bunch of City Guys, in fact, New York City guys. Fact is there has never been hard rock mining in Minnesota. The chemistry is a bit different than our traditional industry iron ore/ taconite industry. Lotta superfund sites around the USA where they used to do copper/nickel mining. As our president is well aware, bankruptcy can be a wonderful thing, and, believe it or not corporations are not people. I’d be careful about this one if I were taking the long view.

    • Submitted by joe smith on 05/17/2019 - 03:34 pm.

      Charles, taconite is about as hard of a rock as there is. FYI, I worked in the mines for a bit and didn’t see one NYC businessman

  8. Submitted by richard owens on 05/17/2019 - 11:02 am.



    Is this what they call “corruption”, or is iot called “crony capitalism”?
    (asking for a friend)

  9. Submitted by Joe Musich on 05/17/2019 - 09:47 pm.

    Recycle….mining not needed. Please read :

    If recycling/reusing is done mining is unneeded. When you read notice that the information is not coming from the mining industry but the manufacturers who use copper to create what we use. The need for mining is a specious extension of reality. A fake fact.

  10. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 05/18/2019 - 12:12 pm.

    That conservatives conflate taconite mining with sulfide mining is yet more example of their denial of science.

    When they ignore numerous examples of environmental disasters resulting from sulfide mining and insist that “It will be different this time,” it reminds me of the old bromide about second marriages representing the triumph of hope over experience.

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