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Forest Service cancels study of mineral withdrawal

Lifts temporary moratorium on leasing in a portion of the Superior National Forest

Marshall Helmsberger
Posted 9/13/18

REGIONAL— The Trump administration has lifted the temporary suspension of mineral leasing on 234,000 acres of the Superior National Forest located within the Rainy River watershed.

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Forest Service cancels study of mineral withdrawal

Lifts temporary moratorium on leasing in a portion of the Superior National Forest

Posted

REGIONAL— The Trump administration has lifted the temporary suspension of mineral leasing on 234,000 acres of the Superior National Forest located within the Rainy River watershed.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue made the announcement on Thursday, Sept. 6, clearing the way for potential mineral leasing to resume in the area, although it’s unclear if any new mineral leasing requests are imminent. The move was not unexpected since President Trump had previously indicated his intention to lift the leasing moratorium, implemented by President Obama shortly before leaving office. The Trump administration, earlier this year, had reinstated mineral leases for the proposed Twin Metals copper-nickel mine, which were the only mineral leases ever issued in the affected area.

In a press statement, Perdue said the decision comes following “a thorough review” and after hearing from thousands of citizens. “It’s our duty as responsible stewards of our environment to maintain and protect our natural resources. At the same time, we must put our national forests to work for the taxpayers to support local economies and create jobs,” Perdue said. “We can do these two things at once: protect the integrity of the watershed and contribute to economic growth and stronger communities.”

In fact, the Forest Service’s analysis was less than had been promised by agency officials, even under Trump’s tenure. Forest Service officials had initially stated that they would conduct a full environmental impact statement (EIS) on the effects of the proposed mineral withdrawal. The Trump administration later indicated that it would substitute a less-intensive environmental analysis, or EA, on the proposal. Secretary Perdue had also promised members of Congress that he would complete the environmental assessment and would make no final decision on the withdrawal until he had all the facts. Yet Brady Smith, acting national press officer for the Forest Service’s Washington, D.C. office, acknowledged in a statement to the Timberjay that no environmental assessment had been done because the agency ultimately determined it was unnecessary.

The USDA’s latest announcement, which incorrectly states that the temporary suspension of mineral leasing was enacted in 2016, indicates that the agency review “included a mineral resources report, a biological and economic impact assessment, and potential impacts to water resources, wilderness areas, and cultural resources.” The agency claims that their analysis “did not reveal new scientific information.”

The suspension of mineral leasing was actually enacted in January of 2017. At the time, Forest Service officials had cited the mine’s “potential to generate and release water with elevated levels of acidity, metals, and other potential contaminants.” While the mine would likely include water treatment, the Forest Service noted that such treatment would need to be in place in perpetuity and noted “it is not at all certain that such maintenance and treatment can be assured over many decades.”

While the Trump administration’s decision was hardly a surprise, environmental and conservation groups reacted with displeasure. “The administration ignored science and facts, and clearly did not complete a promised study on the social, economic and environmental harm that sulfide-ore copper mining would do to America’s most popular wilderness,” said Alex Falconer, executive director of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters. The Forest Service had conducted initial public comment hearings as part of the scoping for the promised study, but the study was never completed.

“Trump’s decision is based solely on corrupt political impulses that ignore the Forest Service’s own science and expertise,” said Marc Fink, a Duluth attorney representing the Center for Biological Diversity in a lawsuit against the administration’s earlier decision to reinstate the Twin Metals mineral leases. Citing Secretary Perdue’s earlier commitment to thoroughly study the issue, environmentalists said the administration had gone back on its word. “The Trump Administration broke its word to us, to Congress, and to the American people when it said it would finish the environmental assessment and base decisions on facts and science,” said Falconer, “It’s clear whose interest this administration is really serving, and it’s not that of the American people.”

Meanwhile, Jobs for Minnesotans, a Duluth-based group supporting the Twin Metals project, lauded the decision. “Today’s announcement from the U.S. Department of Agriculture is the right decision for Minnesota’s future and validates the existing environmental review process – which states the proper time to evaluate potential impacts of mining projects is after they have been proposed,” said the group in a statement. “This action upholds what Minnesotans who believe that a mining economy can coexist with a treasured environment have been saying for nearly two years.”

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