In a move that brought celebration among environmentalists but trepidation for supporters of mining in northern Minnesota, the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and the Interior announced Wednesday a two-year hold on issuing new mineral leases within the Rainy River watershed. The departments also announced a study of potential impacts of mining near the watershed would be conducted.
This decision mirrors a decision made in the last days of the Obama administration to begin a similar study, one that was subsequently canceled during the Trump administration.
Now, the fate of Twin Metals Mining, a proposed copper-nickel mine that has been in the works for years, is subject to the environmental study and decision making of the Biden administration. Here are answers to questions about what the administration’s move means for the future of the project.
What exactly did USDA and the Department of Interior announce?
The Departments of Agriculture and the Interior announced Wednesday that they would take actions to “protect the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and surrounding watershed in northeastern Minnesota, a unique natural wonder and one of the jewels of the National Wilderness Preservation System.”
Those actions include a “consideration” of a 20-year mineral withdrawal, or a withdrawal of “key portions” of national forest lands from mining activity. This would temporarily prohibit any new prospecting permits or leases in the area.
The press release also announced a study of potential impacts of mining in the BWCA and surrounding watershed. No new mineral leases will be issued while the study is being completed and public input is gathered.
Is this the same type of study that was announced in 2016?
Yes. In 2016, the final year of the Barack Obama administration, the U.S. Forest Service began a study that could have led to a 20-year moratorium on copper-nickel mining in the Rainy River watershed in Superior National Forest, which is very close to the BWCA.
That study was abruptly canceled after former president Donald Trump took office. The study was only four months from completion.
Now, the same type of study will begin again. This study is a required part of the mineral withdrawal process, and it could lead to a 20-year mining ban in the region.
Who can call for an official mineral withdrawal?
A mineral withdrawal is an action by the Secretary of the Interior that limits mining activity in a specific area of public lands, usually to maintain the integrity of federal land. Some reasons for a withdrawal include protecting the quality of scientific, historical, ecological, environmental or archaeological resources.
The Secretary of the Interior (currently Deb Haaland) can issue a mineral withdrawal for a maximum of 20 years. Only Congress can legislate a permanent withdrawal.
What will happen to Twin Metals’ mineral leases?
This decision only puts a hold on future mineral leases. Twin Metals is seeking one such lease, but it already holds two mineral leases in the area. Those leases are unaffected by the Biden administration’s decision. However, the Department of the Interior Bureau of Land Management has said that the Twin Metals mining project will not be economically feasible without a third lease.
Twin Metals’ other two leases are subject to a different legal process. Those leases expired and were not renewed during the last year of the Obama administration, when the previous study for mineral withdrawal was ordered. During the Trump administration, though, the leases were reinstated. The organization Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, which advocates against copper mining near the Boundary Waters and the Rainy River watershed, has sued over Trump’s reinstatement of the leases, saying it was illegal. That case is working its way through the courts.
Does this decision affect the mine approval process taking place at the state level?
Not as of right now. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is currently working with Twin Metals to conduct an environmental review of the mining project, and the DNR will create an environmental impact statement. Since the announcement from the USDA and Interior comes at the federal level, sources familiar with the situation say this announcement won’t affect state-level activities.
“This is just a federal decision,” said Jeremy Drucker, senior advisor for the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters. “We believe that there is a strong case to be made for halting the review at the state level, but that would be a state level decision.”
What are people saying about the decision?
Pro-mining and union groups have expressed their disappointment with the Biden administration’s Wednesday decision.
Ryan Sistad, executive director of Better In Our Back Yard, an organization that advocates for “responsible industrial development” and for projects like Twin Metals, called the move “disappointing” and “unnecessary.”
“It contradicts the president’s goals in moving towards a green economy while creating more union jobs,” Sistad said. “Politicians who advocate for renewable energy technologies should also be advocating for the domestic production of minerals critical to the green energy economy in a region where these minerals can be mined safely and responsibly — not offshore bolstering the economic prosperity of countries far away.”
Eighth District Rep. Pete Stauber, whose district covers the area where Twin Metals would mine, said that Biden is “putting politics over science.” Stauber also said that Minnesota democratic representatives and senators were “complicit in this incredibly harmful decision.”
Fourth District Rep. Betty McCollum has been a long-time advocate for banning sulfide-ore copper mining in the Boundary Waters and Rainy River watershed areas, and pushed the Biden administration to release the contents of the study that began under the Obama administration and was canceled during the Trump administration.
“Today’s action by the Biden administration is a welcome return to the science-based decision making that should govern the management of our public lands,” Rep. McCollum said in a statement. “After years of broken promises and ongoing obstruction of taxpayer-funded data from the prior administration, I am pleased that President Biden is committed to completing the necessary analysis to understand the impacts that sulfide-ore mining could have on this priceless reserve of fresh water.”
Drucker from Save the Boundary Waters concurred, calling yesterday’s announcement a “strong statement” from the Biden administration.
“This action today by the Biden administration is a strong statement that they recognize that America’s most visited wilderness is a place that is worthy of protection, and that should be preserved for future generations. And it is no place to put our nation’s most toxic industry, that it has no place next to our most visited wilderness,” Drucker said.
What happens next?
No new prospecting permits or leases for mining related activities will be issued in Superior National Forest in the Rainy River watershed for the next two years. The Bureau of Land management and the Forest Service will also conduct a 90-day public review period for the proposed mineral withdrawal, and consultation with Tribal leaders and further public meetings. Detailed information on how to submit comments during the public comment period is on the Federal Register’s website.
Twin Metals will likely continue to undergo an environmental review process with the DNR, but the company will not be able to apply for a new lease for the next two years.
Ultimately, the USDA and Interior will make a final “science-based” decision on the future of mining in the Rainy River watershed.