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

The project has garnered national media attention and even become a wedge issue in the presidential campaign. And that was before Twin Metals Minnesota submitted its official operating plan for review.

Tom Landwehr
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.
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein

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.”

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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. 

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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.

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“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.