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REGIONAL— The U.S. Department of the Interior announced Thursday that they are withdrawing approximately 225,504 acres of the Superior National Forest from potential mineral leasing for the next 20 years.
The decision, announced Jan. 26 by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, covers a sizable portion of the upper Rainy River watershed, portions of which are known to hold large, low-grade deposits of copper, nickel, palladium, and cobalt. The decision is clearly a blow to copper mining giant Antofagasta and its proposed Twin Metals mine, near Ely, although the fate of two mineral leases under which the company had advanced that project remain subject to court review.
The Biden administration took steps in January 2022 to cancel those mineral leases, however, Twin Metals is suing to overturn that decision.
The mineral withdrawal would prevent new leasing in the affected area, but the former leases could still be reinstated by a court. This week’s decision, however, will block a third mineral lease sought by Twin Metals for at least the next 20 years.
The Federal Land Policy and Management Act gives the Interior Secretary authority to withdraw areas from mineral leasing for a variety of reasons, including protection of exceptional areas against environmental degradation.
The affected area is located just upstream of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, so waters impacted by mining pollution would impact an area known for some of the highest quality waters in the United States. Interior officials argued that the decision is consistent with the intent of federal lawmakers. “Congress expanded protections for the wilderness area in 1978, when it directed the Forest Service to maintain high water quality and to minimize ‘to the maximum extent possible’ the environmental impacts associated with mineral development,” noted a press statement issued by the department.
“The Department of the Interior takes seriously our obligations to steward public lands and waters on behalf of all Americans,” said Secretary Haaland. “Protecting a place like the Boundary Waters is key to supporting the health of the watershed and its surrounding wildlife, upholding our tribal trust and treaty responsibilities, and boosting the local recreation economy.”
Federal officials note that the decision “is the culmination of more than a year of evaluation by federal partners and robust public involvement regarding the potential impacts of mining on the important natural and cultural resources of the Rainy River Watershed.” The agency undertook and completed an environmental review of the proposed withdrawal that concluded the benefits of a withdrawal outweighed any drawbacks.
The U.S. Forest Service had requested the withdrawal in an application filed with the Bureau of Land Management in October 2021. The Forest Service manages the surface lands in question, while the BLM manages federal mineral rights. Federal law, however, does give the Forest Service the right to approve or deny mining on lands within the Superior National Forest and the agency has indicated its opposition to copper-nickel mining within the Rainy River watershed for several years. That opposition continued through the Obama, Trump, and Biden administrations.
Forest Service officials have indicated that the sulfide-based ore found in the watershed poses a unique threat to downstream waters, one that agency officials fear would be difficult to prevent or mitigate.
Supporters of the mine plan have argued that the mine can be operated without impacting downstream waters and that it would create several hundred high-paying jobs in the area.
Supporters of protection have argued that the mine would inevitably pollute and that the development would threaten a robust recreational economy that already exists in the area, catering to visitors to the wilderness.
While the Biden administration’s decision was expected, the response was swift and, at times, hyperbolic, from elected officials from northeastern Minnesota, who have backed the Twin Metals proposal.
“Today is an attack on our way of life,” said Eighth District Congressman Pete Stauber. “Joe Biden banned mining in 225,000 acres of Minnesota’s Iron Range, and locked up development of taconite, copper, nickel, cobalt, platinum group elements, and more,” said Stauber, who promised a political response to the action. “They will answer for the pain they elected to cause my constituents today,” Stauber noted.
Contrary to Stauber’s comments, the withdrawal decision will not impact iron ore or taconite mining in northeastern Minnesota, even on lands within the Superior National Forest. Neither will the decision impact the proposed PolyMet copper-nickel mine, near Hoyt Lakes, which is located within the Superior National Forest but outside the Rainy River watershed. That project has been in development for the past two decades and is currently mired in legal challenges to several of its permits.
Other northeastern Minnesota lawmakers also weighed in, with an accusation-filled letter they sent to President Biden. “Today’s order will cause Minnesota and our communities to lose thousands of potential jobs that would have resulted in future mining projects, billions of dollars in future investment in the people of northeast Minnesota, and billions of dollars in revenues that would support students through Minnesota’s School Trust Lands,” notes the letter, which is signed by the entire northeastern Minnesota legislative delegation.
In fact, the withdrawal will have no direct impact on state school trust lands, since the withdrawal only affects federal land within the borders of the withdrawal zone. Meanwhile, state officials had concerns about potential liability from a Twin Metals proposal to store mine tailings on school trust land. In a Feb. 15 letter to Twin Metals CEO Kelly Osborne, DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen noted that the DNR officials believed that request posed an “unacceptable financial risk to the state and potentially to the School Trust Fund.”
Area lawmakers let other questionably sourced charges fly as well. “It is unacceptable that your administration is once again choosing to invest taxpayer dollars in the development of Chinese owned mines in nations that employ child-slave labor while blocking…critical minerals here in America,” wrote the delegation. The Timberjay inquired with the delegation’s spokesperson, David Anderson, about the source for the claim, but he did not respond prior to presstime. While the Biden administration has recently announced a U.S. commitment to invest in mines in Zambia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, those investments were announced last year primarily as a geopolitical strategy to begin to reverse growing Chinese influence over the metals mining sector in Africa.
Meanwhile, supporters of the withdrawal were elated by the administration’s decision. “In my view, this decision is the most significant land protection effort in the past 40 years in Minnesota,” said Becky Rom, of Ely, who serves as national chair of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, an organization established to fight the proposed Twin Metals project.
The group held a celebration rally last Friday in Ely to mark the political victory.
Despite the win, Rom said her organization can’t rest until the wilderness enjoys permanent protection from the potential impacts of sulfide-based mining. The organization has been working at both the state and federal level for years to pass legislation that would permanently withdraw mineral leasing from that portion of the upper Rainy River watershed where the sulfide-based deposits are found.
The BWCAW is among the largest wilderness areas in the lower 48 states and is the most heavily visited wilderness in the country.
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