WASHINGTON – The avalanche of letters – about 198,000 – that poured into the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) that will help decide the future of mining in the Rainy River Watershed overwhelmed the agency.
So much so that the agency did not make them public until this month, after requests from the MinnPost to release them.
Those letters, submitted during a public comment period that ended in January, show the divide between people concerned about possible contamination of the Boundary Water Canoe Area Wilderness and Iron Range residents who are hoping an expansion of mining would ensure their economic survival.
The contents of the letters both favored the implementation of a 20-year mining moratorium on 225,378 acres of Superior National Forest, which is located in a watershed that feeds the Boundary Waters Wilderness area. Other letters supported efforts to establish a huge new underground mine in the area. All comments must be considered by the Biden administration when it makes final decision on whether to put the forest area off limits to mining, a decision that’s expected by the end of the year.
The Bureau said it received 198,111 public comments. Most of these were form letters, opposed or supportive of mining. Only 2,221 were “original, unique responses,” the Bureau said. All of these letters were given to the U.S. Forest Service, an agency under the Department of Agriculture that will make a recommendation about the proposed moratorium. But the Interior Department will make the final decision.
It could ban mining in the entire area for 20 years, or consider other options, including a ban of shorter duration and a ban only on areas in the forest that have few minerals.
In January, the Biden administration blocked the renewal of Twin Metal leases that would allow the company, whose owner is the Chilean mining conglomerate Antofagasta, to begin work on a copper and nickel mine in the Superior National Forest. A mining moratorium would further block Twin Metal’s plans to try to develop what is considered one of the largest undeveloped copper-nickel resources in the world and make the area off limits to other mines.
The public comment letters that deluged the bureau show the breadth of the effort to prevent copper and nickel mining, as well as the extraction of other metals that might be found, in the Rainy River Watershed. They are addressed from the Bronx to California and nearly everywhere in between. They even came from overseas, from the Netherlands, England and other nations.
Environmental groups worked to make their voices heard, providing sample letters intended to urge the federal government to ban mining on 225,378 acres of federal forestland.
“The science shows that copper-sulfide mining is a grave threat to the water-rich environment of northeastern Minnesota,” one letter began. “We must not risk this national treasure for the short-term financial gain of the international mining industry.”
Another sample letter, distributed by Save the Boundary Waters, said “I urge the BLM to withdraw the 225,378 acres of national forest lands to protect the Boundary Waters from the threat of endless sulfide-ore copper mining pollution.”
Opposition to proposed mining in the Superior National comes from a strong coalition of state and national environmental groups that include Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness, the Center for Biological Diversity, Earth Justice, the National Parks Conservation Association, the Wilderness Society, Voyageurs Conservancy and Wilderness Watch. Becky Rom, national chair of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, has worked for years to help form the coalition of environmentalists. She’s a resident of Ely, home to Twin Metals’ operational headquarters, and many of her neighbors oppose her campaign. She said the coalition has a total of about 18 million members and many responded to appeals to submit comments.
“A lot of people like help so we helped them,” Rom said. “We provided ways for people to express their views.”
While the environmental groups flexed their muscle in the public comment campaign, some people weighed in on their own, including David Haaversen of Two Harbors, who said he had been vacationing in the Boundary Waters for 25 years.
“There is no way in the world that quite moves me like the Boundary Waters and Quetico Park, just north in Canada,” Haaversen wrote.
He told MinnPost he wrote the letter because, “I’ve always felt projects like this are very short sighted,” and agreed with the Native American concept of “looking towards seven generations in the future.”
Securing the nation’s future
By far, not all public comments sought a mining moratorium in the Superior National Forest. There were form letters in opposition, as well as those written by individuals like David Johnson, who said he is a “fourth generation Elyite” and a retired miner.
Johnson condemned what he viewed as efforts to shift the Iron Range economy from mining to tourism and said efforts to curtail mining “have seriously damaged our local economy and its business community.”
“Tourism has never been the driving force behind our local economy,” Johnson wrote.
And Errol Sehnke of Superior, Wisconsin wrote that he wanted to comment because, “My mother was once the sole schoolteacher at a one-room schoolhouse in Isabella, Minnesota located within the proposed withdrawal area.”
Like other mining supporters Sehnke said mining could be done safely. He also said the minerals that would be dug up are needed to maintain the nation’s manufacturing economy and develop new technologies.
“The USA must step up and secure its own future,” Sehnke wrote.
Meanwhile, Jason George, the business manager of the International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 49, also wrote in opposition to any effort to bar mining in northeastern Minnesota.
Like many supporters of the proposed Twin Metals mine, George asked the federal government to study the risk of that specific mine, instead of focusing on the larger dangers that mining could pose in the region.
One problem raised by those opposed to development in the forest is that the mining of copper, nickel and other ores are in rock that contains sulfides, and when exposed to air and water those sulfides could generate acid that leach toxic metals into the water.
Twin Metals, however, says its plans for a huge undergrown mining operation are safe.
George also asked the Interior Department to study the potential economic benefits of the company’s proposed new mine, while conceding “the potential benefits of these mining projects are not the primary aim of the environmental analysis.”
“However, they are too important to not consider, especially when weighed against the minimal potential risks presented by mining projects that are able to gain approval through Minnesota’s rigorous permitting process,” George wrote. “Many of our members have lived on the Iron Range their entire lives and hold mining as a vital component of their community.”
George said he was aware of massive amounts of public comments in opposition to mining in the Superior National Forest, but said “90-plus percent of the comments came from outside the region.”
George’s union represents more than 14,000 heavy equipment operating engineers across Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota.
A risk to Native Americans
Last month, the U.S. Forest Service released a preliminary environmental assessment of the withdrawal area. It said the area falls entirely within the boundaries of a territory ceded to three Objiwe bands through an 1854 treaty with the federal government. While the tribes don’t own the land, they have a right to hunt, fish and gather on the property. That, the environmental assessment said, would be threatened if the Rainy River Watershed were polluted, and would especially impact the harvesting of wild rice, a tribal staple. The report concluded that pollution would have a “disproportionate adverse risk to Native American and low-income communities.”
The Forest Service study is now open to public comments, until Aug. 12, which would be considered when the agency drafts its final report.
But sometimes weighing in on the contentious withdrawal issue has consequences.
Last year, a tribal leader wrote a letter in support of legislation sponsored by Rep. Betty McCollum, D-4th, that would permanently put the proposed withdrawal area off limits to copper-nickel mining. But that letter drew backlash. Tribal casinos and other tribal enterprises were boycotted by those opposed to the legislation.
“They lost a lot of business, they got hammered by that,” said Tadd Johnson, assistant professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota.
The Bois Forte band, which is closest to the proposed Twin Metals mine, did not return repeated requests for comment. But Johnson said the Chippewa tribes “collectively oppose the mine.”
McCollum says legislation is needed to ensure a full moratorium is kept in place permanently. Her bill inched forward this month with its approval by the House Natural Resources Committee.
But so far, there is no companion bill in the Senate. Minnesota Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith, both Democrats, are reviewing the Forest Service report and other studies on the issue and have not made a commitment – at least not yet – to sponsor legislation.
“Senator Klobuchar has always supported science-based environmental review of projects so close to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness,” a spokesperson for the senator said. “As she has previously said, we must ensure that existing iron ore mining is not negatively impacted by the review process.”
The question is whether taconite mining would continue to be allowed in the Superior National Forest if there’s a moratorium. McCollum says the ban in her legislation would not extend to that iron ore.
Meanwhile, Rep. Peter Stauber, R-8th, who represents the Iron Range, has passionately fought efforts by the Biden administration and McCollum to impose a mining moratorium. He said there’s a way to both spur economic development and provide the nation with needed minerals and protect the environment.
“We know that mining has had issues in the past,” Stauber said. “But when we know how to do better, we do better.”