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With start of Twin Metals’ environmental review, the political showdown over the project kicks into high gear

Tom Landwehr
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein
Tom Landwehr, who was Gov. Mark Dayton’s DNR chief, said Gov. Tim Walz could reject or hold Twin Metals’ mine plan in part because the federal government has withheld the study.

For years, the plan by Twin Metals Minnesota for a copper-nickel mine on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness has been one of the state’s most contentious political issues.

It has fractured Democrats, testing their relationship with labor unions, and split some Republicans. The project near Ely has garnered national media attention and even become a wedge issue in the presidential campaign.

And that was before Twin Metals applied for an evaluation needed to build the project. Now, after the company submitted an operating plan Wednesday for environmental review, the political battles may only grow more intense.

On Tuesday, the prominent advocacy group Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters called on Gov. Tim Walz to block the mine from even applying for permits, warning state law won’t prevent a mine from polluting the BWCA. And on Wednesday, a group of unions, business groups, power companies and Iron Range mayors released a letter supporting Twin Metals’ step into the regulatory process because the mine could “help revitalize the economy of northeastern Minnesota.”

Chris Knopf, executive director of the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, said his organization is already fighting the mine in court and intends to comment on the permitting process. But he also foreshadowed the road ahead, predicting the fight over Twin Metals may only ramp up from here. “Ultimately we have to have a political resolution to this,” Knopf said.

What’s the mine plan means

Twin Metals, which is owned by the Chilean mining giant Antofagasta, has worked for a decade to research its deposit and plan for how it could build a mine. Kelly Osborne, the company’s CEO, said they analyzed 2 million feet of core to analyze the ore at the potential mine. To date, Twin Metals has spent more than $450 million on the project.

Gov. Tim Walz
Gov. Tim Walz
The company’s official plan is for an underground mine that would yield copper, nickel, cobalt and other metals near the confluence of Birch Lake and the South Kawishiwi River. Twin Metals argues that it can prevent water pollution with modern mining technology, while processing 20,000 tons of ore per day to feed a growing demand for its minerals. 

Barring an intervention from Walz, the submittal begins a years-long review by state and federal regulators to see if the project can meet environmental laws.

The Department of Natural Resources will start by determining if the company’s application is complete and deciding the scope of environmental review. The federal government is also set to do its own review, known as an Environmental Impact Statement.

A reversal in fortunes for Twin Metals

Julie Padilla, the chief regulatory officer for Twin Metals, guessed the project is between five and seven years away from completing this regulatory gauntlet. “We believe that we can (mine) in a way that is to 21st century standards,” Osborne said. “It’s best in class, best in practices.”

It took a swing in political fortunes for Twin Metals to even get to this point, though. 

In 2016, Barack Obama’s administration canceled leases owned by Twin Metals, saying the risk of polluting the Boundary Waters was too great. The feds also launched a study that could have prompted a 20-year halt on mining in the Rainy River watershed. Then-Gov. Mark Dayton was also staunchly opposed to the project.

But when Donald Trump was elected, his administration reinstated the leases and renewed them. (A lawsuit over whether the leases were legally renewed is pending in federal court.) The federal government also ended the study of the Rainy River watershed early, saying it did not yield any new information. The results have not been made public.

U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, a DFLer from Minnesota’s 4th District, has asked for that research and passed legislation through the House to complete the study and pause any mining review until it’s finished, an idea also supported by DFL Sens. Tina Smith and Amy Klobuchar. But the White House rejected the measure in a budget deal struck by Congress this week.

Rising political pressure

The political arm of the Boundary Waters campaign has successfully lobbied most Democratic presidential candidates to oppose mining in the watershed, including Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg. Klobuchar and Joe Biden have not made such a commitment.

But on Tuesday at the state Capitol, Tom Landwehr, executive director of the nonprofit, went after another political target: Walz. Landwehr, who was Dayton’s DNR chief, said the governor could reject or hold Twin Metals’ mine plan in part because the federal government has withheld the study.

Kawishiwi River
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein
The Kawishiwi River runs near Ely, close to the proposed site of an underground copper-nickel mine owned by Twin Metals Minnesota.
Landwehr has argued Minnesota’s environmental laws do not take into account the pristine nature of the Boundary Waters and would allow enough pollution to harm the wilderness. While the environmental wing of the DFL has balked at the idea of a mine near the BWCA, state lawmakers from the Iron Range — including Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk — and many labor unions have championed the proposal. 

Walz has said he won’t unilaterally stop controversial projects such as Twin Metals or Enbridge’s Line 3 oil pipeline, because he doesn’t want to encourage future governors to skip environmental review to greenlight projects.

Under Walz, the DNR has asked for the federal study on mining in the Rainy River watershed, but the agency won’t say if it will move ahead without it. In a statement Tuesday, Walz spokesman Teddy Tschann said the BWCA is “deeply — and personally — important” to the governor.

“The Governor believes that no mining project should move forward unless it passes a strict environmental review process that includes meaningful opportunities for public comment,” Tschann said.

Mine opponents aren’t the only ones cranking up political pressure. In addition to the letter from unions and Iron Range mayors, Trump has campaigned in Minnesota on his support for copper-nickel mining in a bid to win a politically key part of the 2020 swing state that has traditionally belonged to Democrats.

MinnPost photo by Brian Halliday
Pete Stauber
GOP Rep. Pete Stauber of the 8th District has done the same. In a news release Tuesday, Stauber said Minnesota’s environmental standards are strict, and proclaimed he teamed with Trump to stop the federal mining study from being revived. “I will always stand up for our economic drivers and work to bring high-paying jobs to our hardworking miners, union members and their families,” Stauber said. “We deserve good-paying jobs too.”

The fight over mining is likely to reach Minnesota’s Legislature, as well. Bakk is facing a challenge for his leadership position from Sen. Susan Kent, a Woodbury DFLer, potentially giving lawmakers who are skeptical of copper-nickel mining more sway among Senate Democrats. 

Landwehr and Knopf also said they’re working on separate bills aimed at toughening up Minnesota’s mining rules that could hit the Legislature in coming years. Knopf said his organization plans to create a Political Action Committee to ensure it’s engaged in politics as much as regulatory battles.

“I don’t think that strong legal arguments alone will protect the wilderness,” he said.

Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 12/18/2019 - 06:05 pm.

    Minnesota’s environmental laws are so strict you can’t drink or even swim in many of the waters, many pollinators face extinction, thousands of tons of soil head down the rivers, and there are many chemicals in the groundwater.

    To future generations not yet born: I am terribly sorry we left you a dessicated wasteland empty of biodiversity, polluted beyond redemption in your lifetime. I spent my whole life warning of the dangers, but the only truly sacred thing to my society is economic growth no matter the cost.

  2. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 12/18/2019 - 09:42 pm.

    As a frequent visitor to the range it is important to note that the residents up there do understand mining, iron and copper/nickel. They also value and use the wild lands in their region.

    That said, these are public lands and, like it or not, there is equal ownership between a person living in Eveleth and someone living in Manhattan.

    There are plenty of efforts on each side to advance their cause: hopefully leading to a reasoned conclusion. My biggest concern if these two projects move ahead is the foreign owned, corporate structures, that could be used to enable them to walk away from problems that may arise.

    Mark Twain’s definition of a mine:

    “a hole in the ground owned by a liar.”

    • Submitted by Richard O'Neil on 12/19/2019 - 05:29 pm.

      Mark Twain’s definition of a mine:

      “a hole in the ground owned by a liar.”

      This comment, ahem, kind of undermines(?) any suggestion that copper/nickel mining is environmentally safe. If we can’t support mining in the wilderness area, what are we doing to respond to the area’s residents who have relied on mining for several generations? For the last several years our politicians have not faced up to the reality that mining will destroy these sacred lands to support the livelihood of the local residents.

  3. Submitted by Lawrence Baker on 12/19/2019 - 11:20 pm.

    What fraction of the value of the minerals produced at this mine will come back to the public in the form of salaries, local taxes, and state taxes? My sense is that it will be very little once the mine is operating.

    Are there other ways to generate these benefits that do not wreck the landscape? And if the mine is built, will this preclude other economic development?

    Example: Hi speed wi-fi might make it possible for many professionals to live “up north) and spend money on local services. But few would if there is a mine in Ely. Many Minnesotans would be willing to help pay for high speed Wi-Fi in the region than have a mine. Maybe other ideas?

    • Submitted by Dennis Leclaire on 12/21/2019 - 04:16 pm.

      Any economic benefit to local residents will be short lived. The cancer causing heavy metals left behind will last for generations. Wake up people. Your beautiful waterfront property is going to be worthless once the water is polluted. Drinking water will be affected and food from the rivers and lakes will carry the contaminates. I have faith in mankind. The waters will forever be polluted if either of these projects are allowed to happen.

  4. Submitted by Richard Owens on 12/20/2019 - 10:29 am.

    “Dry Stack” = a new improved revolutionary way of avoiding responsibility for the guaranteed pollution this effort will permanently lay at the feet of Minnesotans in perpetuity.

    In other revelations, Reuters today has an excellent piece on tailings dams. “The Reuters data compilation reflects disclosures from 89 companies with mines in over 60 countries.”

    • Submitted by Dennis Leclaire on 12/21/2019 - 04:18 pm.

      How about these foreign companies send their tailings back to their own countries like the money they are gonna make raping our land.

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