REGIONAL— The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources will conduct its own environmental impact statement on any copper-nickel mining proposal issued by Twin Metals. That’s according to …
REGIONAL— The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources will conduct its own environmental impact statement on any copper-nickel mining proposal issued by Twin Metals.
That’s according to DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen, who made the announcement at a press conference held in St. Paul on Friday.
Twin Metals, a subsidiary of Chilean mining giant Antofagasta, is expected to issue its plan to mine copper-nickel near Ely in December, at which point both the DNR and federal agencies will need to develop their process for reviewing the proposal’s environmental impacts.
The federal review is governed by the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, while the DNR’s process is governed by a separate state law, known as MEPA. While state and federal agencies conducted the previous EIS on the proposed PolyMet project jointly, the state of Minnesota will do its own review this time around.
“The credibility and transparency of the EIS process for the proposed Twin Metals project is critical to Minnesotans,” said Strommen. “The DNR is committed to ensuring a thorough, scientific, and neutral review of the proposal, based on state law. We believe this will be best accomplished through separate EIS processes at the state and federal levels.” Strommen said Twin Metals has requested additional federal mineral leases which will require an environmental review that won’t impact the state process, making a separate state process more efficient.
The DNR’s decision suggests that state officials are fearful about the credibility of any environmental review conducted under the Trump administration, although Strommen was careful not to say so publicly, despite questions from reporters.
The Trump administration has already come under withering fire from opponents of the Twin Metals proposal for the administration’s decision to reinstate mineral leases to Twin Metals that the Obama administration had cancelled just weeks before President Trump took office. That action is currently in litigation, with an initial decision expected soon.
The Trump administration has also rebuffed efforts by the media and Congress to obtain studies that Forest Service officials had gathered as part of a two-year study of a proposed 20-year mineral lease withdrawal that would have prohibited any new mining leases on about 234,000 acres of federal land within the Rainy River watershed. The affected lands are all located upstream of the 1.1 million-acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, which makes the protection of water quality in those areas of high concern.
Strommen said the DNR expects to have access to all previously prepared federal environmental review data related to the Twin Metals project, including from the study of the federal mineral withdrawal. Should the Trump administration make that information available, Strommen indicated it would become public under Minnesota law.
According to Strommen, the DNR will continue to work cooperatively with the federal agencies, to the fullest extent possible, to reduce duplication and to coordinate steps like data submittals, analytical approaches, and public participation. “We will also seek to coordinate closely with federal agencies as we undertake Minnesota’s consultations with tribal governments. Though the MEPA and NEPA EIS processes will be separate, coordination between state and federal agencies will benefit all interested parties,” said Strommen.
The specific details of how and when the DNR will proceed with its environmental review likely won’t be known until sometime after the agency receives the mine plan proposal from Twin Metals. That’s also when the agency will learn whether Twin Metals is seeking access to any new state lands for its project development. Gov. Mark Dayton issued an order in 2016 that prohibited Twin Metals from accessing some state lands. Assistant Commissioner Barb Naramore said that the agency does not currently have any such requests before it, so it won’t have to decide whether to continue, or lift, Dayton’s prohibition until such a request is made.
Twin Metals, in a statement, said the DNR’s decision for a separate state process won’t change the company’s approach. “The agencies that oversee the environmental review of our project have robust processes in place to ensure we are held to the highest of standards,” said Kathy Graul, manager of public relations with Twin Metals. “We look forward to fully engaging with agencies and the public in the coming years, and we ultimately believe that engagement will lead to the best project for Minnesota. We must meet or exceed all environmental standards, or our project will not proceed.”
Critics of the proposed copper-nickel mine were mostly supportive of the DNR’s decision, with reservations. “While we believe the DNR made the right decision, talk of a state environmental review at this point is presumptuous,” said Chris Knopf, with the Friends of the Boundary Waters. “Whether Twin Metals can legally mine on this public land is still disputed. Our lawsuit challenging the legality of Twin Metals’ lease renewals is still waiting for a decision in District Court. This foreign-owned mining company is acting as though they are entitled to Minnesota’s land, and we are confident we will win our case and they will not mine.”
Ely resident Becky Rom, who heads the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, said a prohibition on mining within the BWCAW watershed was the only way to protect wilderness water quality. “It’s good that Governor Walz recognizes that the Trump Administration can’t be trusted to faithfully and with integrity do environmental review of sulfide-ore copper mining near the Boundary Waters,” said Rom. “However, state standards are insufficient to protect the Wilderness from the inevitable industrial pollution that will flow from a copper mine next to this priceless natural resource.”