After President Donald Trump took office in 2017, his administration ended a study that could have led to a 20-year ban on copper-nickel mining near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Now, a fight has erupted in Congress over whether that research should get a fresh look.
U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum of Minnesota’s 4th Congressional District has led the charge for a new environmental review of how mining for copper, nickel and other precious metals could affect the Rainy River watershed, which drains into the BWCA. The Democrat has warned that Twin Metals Minnesota, a company trying to build a copper-nickel mine near Ely, could pollute water and threaten jobs built around outdoor tourism.
McCollum has found allies in Minnesota Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith, who have described the study as a necessary scientific review. Retiring Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee also sided with the Democrats, boosting the chances of the research being approved by a divided Congress.
Yet others in the GOP aren’t sold on reviving an inquiry that began under Barack Obama, who stalled the Twin Metals project as he left office.
Rep. Pete Stauber of Minnesota’s 8th District said the study is a politically motivated precursor to blanket restrictions on mining and would prevent hundreds of industry jobs in the historically mine-friendly Iron Range. “This is, in my mind, an underhanded attack on our way of life,” he said.
Trump reverses an Obama study
In the waning days of Obama’s administration, the federal government canceled mineral leases owned by Twin Metals, effectively halting the company’s ambitions for an underground mine. But the administration also launched the two-year study of whether there should be mining at all in the 234,000 acres of Superior National Forest within the Rainy River watershed. It could have led to a 20-year ban, known as a mineral withdrawal.
Such a withdrawal is not unprecedented. In 2018, Trump’s Department of the Interior finalized a 20-year stop on mining on more than 30,000 acres of federal lands in Montana just outside Yellowstone National Park. “I fully support multiple use of public lands, but multiple use is about balance and knowing that not all areas are right for all uses,” former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said at the time. “There are places where it is appropriate to mine and places where it is not.”
Last year, the Trump administration also recommended a two-decade moratorium on mining on 340,000 acres in Washington state’s Methow Valley, another outdoor destination rich in wildlife.
But those withdrawals had support from a bipartisan range of local elected officials. In Minnesota, Republicans and some DFLers have stood by the prospect of mining near the BWCA and contend it can be done without harm to the wilderness.
Trump’s administration reinstated and renewed Twin Metals’ mineral leases. But first it ended the withdrawal study, saying 15 months of research had yielded no new information. The Department of Agriculture (USDA) has not released any of the research that informed its conclusion, but Secretary Sonny Perdue said at the time it was putting “national forests to work for the taxpayers to support local economies and create jobs.”
“We can do these two things at once: protect the integrity of the watershed and contribute to economic growth and stronger communities,” Perdue said.
(Trump’s administration has also worked to facilitate mining and other extractive industry elsewhere on federal land, including two national monuments in Utah and along parts of Oregon’s Chetco river.)
The Minnesota decision has generated intense backlash from environmental activists and others who feel the best chance to stop a copper-nickel mine near the BWCA may be to enact the 20-year ban. It has also reinvigorated Twin Metals, which now expects to submit an operation plan to the state before the end of the year and begin environmental review of the project.
Minnesota Democrats support new research
McCollum, now the chief House budget writer for the Interior, the Environmental Protection Agency and the USDA’s Forest Service, wrote legislation requesting the study be revived and its findings publicly released. It was approved by the House in tandem with a larger spending plan for the agencies this year. While the instruction is not legally binding, a spokesperson for McCollum said Congress expects the agencies to follow such directives.
The lengthy measure hammers the USDA for initially promising to complete the study and then “abruptly” stopping research that could have shed more light on the potential for water pollution from copper-nickel mining, often referred to acid mine drainage. “The Committee is at a loss to explain the disparate treatment between the Rainy River withdrawal proposal and two other similar proposals in Washington and Montana which were allowed to be completed despite all three locations facing similar threats of acid drainage from sulfide-ore mining,” McCollum’s bill says.
In the Senate, Smith and Klobuchar asked an appropriations committee to include their own similar directive. According to Smith’s office, the measure is shorter and not as critical of the Trump administration, but it says the federal government should take “no action to advance” hard-rock mining in the Rainy River watershed until it addresses whether it’s “appropriate” in the area by reopening the study.
The two DFL senators have not opposed Twin Metals or the idea of copper-nickel mining in the Rainy River watershed, even as a host of Democratic presidential candidates have come out against the notion. Klobuchar even drew national attention for criticizing the Obama administration as politically motivated when it canceled Twin Metals’ mineral leases, denying a chance at further environmental review. “I am not for or against this project but I just wanted a fair process based on science that told us the truth,” Klobuchar said in an email published by the Wall Street Journal to then-USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack. “That is not how this feels.”
In that same spirit, Klobuchar has also called for the release of the Trump administration’s research on the Rainy River watershed and said she does not trust the federal government to conduct a fair evaluation of Twin Metals’ environmental impacts. “I have long said that the mining projects in northern Minnesota should undergo a rigorous environmental review process, and the impacts of this proposed project — near the treasured Boundary Waters — must be paramount,” Klobuchar said in a written statement.
More environmental review
On a trip to Ely, Smith told locals it was “a mistake” for the Trump administration to stop the study, and said in a statement to MinnPost that copper-nickel mining in the BWCA’s watershed should get extra scrutiny. “I’m pushing for the completion of a study that will lead to more informed decisions about proposed mining near the Boundary Waters and I believe that the results of the study must be available to the public,” she said.
The measure supported by Smith and Klobuchar was not included in a final Senate spending plan that is expected to be voted on soon, but Alexander, who serves on an appropriations subcommittee dedicated to environmental agencies, has pledged to fight for it during negotiations with the House.
Still, Smith’s staff said it may not have wide Republican support, hurting its chances of passing Congress.
Smith and Klobuchar’s views on the mineral withdrawal study are also at odds with many near the potential mines in northeast Minnesota, including most elected officials.
Stauber, whose 8th District includes the Iron Range and the Arrowhead region, said Obama was injecting a hurdle for Twin Metals that was “never part of the scope of the environmental review or the permitting process” for the project.
He said state and federal regulators will still get a crack at researching the mine and its environmental impacts when Twin Metals submits its plan of operations later this year. PolyMet Mining, which hopes to build an open-pit copper-nickel mine near Hoyt Lakes in Lake Superior’s watershed, went through a nearly 15-year state regulatory process examining the risk of water pollution and more. While the mine was approved, key permits have been stayed by the courts.
Stauber and Twin Metals maintain the project can meet necessary legal standards as PolyMet did and should get a chance to prove it. Stauber tried to force a vote to negate McCollum’s legislation, but was unsuccessful. “This was purely political and for partisan reasons to stop the opportunity to mine these precious metals,” Stauber said of the Obama-era study.