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With a Democratic administration in place, could the federal government’s study of mining in northern Minnesota finally be released?

The study, begun in the final days of the Obama administration, was canceled by former President Donald Trump just four months shy of its completion.

BWCA
In 2016, the U.S. Forest Service began a study that, depending on its findings, could have led to a 20-year moratorium on copper-nickel mining in the Rainy River watershed in Superior National Forest, very near to the BWCA, shown above.
MinnPost file photo by Greta Kaul

The fate of Twin Metals Minnesota’s plan to mine copper and nickel from sulfide ores in northern Minnesota — just five miles from the edge of the federally protected Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA) — has risen and fallen with recent U.S. presidential administrations.

In 2016, the final year of the Barack Obama administration, the U.S. Forest Service began a study that, depending on its findings, could have led to a 20-year moratorium on copper-nickel mining in the Rainy River watershed in Superior National Forest, very near to the BWCA. The moratorium would’ve effectively put an end to Twin Metals’ plan for a mine in northern Minnesota.

The study was lauded by environmentalists but opposed by Republicans (and some Democrats) who wished to promote the mining industry in northern Minnesota. Shortly after former President Donald Trump took office — and just four months before the study’s scheduled completion — the study was abruptly ended.

Now, nearly four years after the study’s cancellation — and with a new, Democratic administration in place — its findings still have not been released.

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Study canceled

In December 2016, in the last days of the Obama administration, the federal government did not renew mineral leases held by Twin Metals Minnesota, a subsidiary of the Chilean firm Antofagasta. The administration also proposed a “mineral withdrawal” — a 20-year ban on new mining — in the watershed of the Boundary Waters.

Around the same time, the U.S. Forest Service launched a two-year study to determine whether or not any mining should be allowed in the 234,000 acres of Superior National Forest within the Rainy River watershed.

The study continued after former President Donald Trump took office, and in May 2017, McCollum questioned the former Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke on the status of the study during an Interior Appropriations hearing, where both men promised that it would be completed.

But 20 months into the 24-month study, the Trump administration abruptly canceled it and renewed Twin Metals’ mineral leases.

Rep. Betty McCollum shown during an Interior, Environment, & Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee Hearing on the U.S. Forest Service on May 25, 2017.
Rep. Betty McCollum shown during an Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies Subcommittee hearing on February 11, 2020.
Just before the study was canceled, in June 2018, Trump held a rally in Duluth and a roundtable discussion with elected officials and union workers at the Port of Duluth Superior. At both events, Trump spoke about how Minnesota’ mining industry had benefited from his policies. At the rally, Trump sang the praises of copper-nickel mining in Superior National Forest. Trump also continuously praised Rep. Pete Stauber, who at the time was running for the Eighth District seat. (Stauber was elected to office in 2018, and re-elected in 2020.)

Weeks later, former Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, appointee of the Trump administration, announced that the Forest Service would cancel its application for the mineral withdrawal, and abruptly end the study process and the development of an environmental assessment.

The New York Times reported in 2019 on emails and schedules that showed that beginning in the early days of Trump’s presidency, the administration “worked at a high level” to overrule concerns that Twin Metals could harm the Boundary Waters. The documents showed that officials from Antofagasta, the mine’s parent company, discussed the project with senior administration officials, including the White House’s top energy adviser.

Just before Trump took office, billionaire Andrónico Luksic, who is a member of the family which controls Antofagasta, bought a $5.5 million house in Washington. He then rented the house to Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner. Ivanka is Donald Trump’s daughter and was a top advisor to the former president. Kushner, Ivanka’s husband, oversaw a broad portfolio of duties in the administration including overseeing the U.S.-Mexico border wall, ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and solving the opioid crisis. When Luksic bought the house, Twin Metals was suing the federal government over mining leases.

Save the Boundary Waters, a Minnesota activist group opposed to copper mining near the Boundary Waters, called the rental situation “deeply troubling.”

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The future of Twin Metals

Even after the study was canceled, environmentalists — and McCollum — pressed the Trump administration to keep the withdrawal of the mining leases in place.

McCollum also repeatedly asked for the results of the study to be released, to no avail. Only after a 2019 lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by The Wilderness Society, an environmental nonprofit, did the U.S. Department of Agriculture release 61 pages of the study: a cover page along with 60 pages that were completely blacked out with redactions.

In February of this year, McCollum wrote a letter requesting that the Biden administration revisit the issue of the study. USDA Sec. Tom Vilsack confirmed in April that a review of the Trump administration’s actions was underway. But it is unclear if the Biden administration will release the study in its current form or complete it, or what other actions it will take regarding sulfide-ore mining in northern Minnesota.

Throughout the back-and-forth between administrations, Twin Metals has continued to develop and propose its underground mining project. It submitted its formal mine plan to state and federal regulators in late 2019 and is now going through the multi-year environmental review process.

Some Minnesota Republicans are strongly in favor of the mine, maintaining that it would create hundreds of industry jobs on the Iron Range, which is historically mine-friendly. Stauber has called McCollum’s opposition to the mining project an “attack on working families in Northeastern Minnesota,” and sent a letter to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland Monday supporting the Twin Metals project.

Ultimately, the Secretary of the Interior has authority under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act to close public lands to new mining projects or leases.

Sources familiar with the Twin Metals timeline say they expect a possible announcement from the Biden administration “soon.” The administration has asked for extensions on several pending lawsuits so that the government can nail down its position on the issue. But the last 60-day extension ends this week.

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Correction: The caption on the photo of Rep. Betty McCollum speaking has been updated to include the correct hearing name and date.