REGIONAL— Minnesota’s junior U.S. Sen. Tina Smith is calling on top Biden administration officials to resume a two-year study “to determine whether the copper-nickel-sulfide ore in …
REGIONAL— Minnesota’s junior U.S. Sen. Tina Smith is calling on top Biden administration officials to resume a two-year study “to determine whether the copper-nickel-sulfide ore in the Rainy River watershed in northeastern Minnesota can be safely mined and whether watershed protections are warranted.”
Smith made her request in a March 26 letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland.
The study is required as part of initiating a 20-year withdrawal of mineral rights on portions of the Superior National Forest. The Obama administration, in late 2016, had initiated a withdrawal process affecting 234,000 acres of the Superior National Forest located within the Rainy River watershed, just upstream of the 1.1-million-acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. But the Trump administration canceled the study before its release and has fought to keep the study’s findings under wraps ever since.
If federal officials reinstate the study and withdrawal effort, it would enable completion of the federal environmental assessment to evaluate both the environmental and economic impacts of a withdrawal. While a withdrawal would likely not affect two existing federal mineral leases issued by the Trump administration to Twin Metals (a subsidiary of Chilean mining giant Antofagasta) it would presumably prevent the company from obtaining additional leases it is seeking as part of its proposal to build a copper-nickel mine southeast of Ely. The two leases issued by the Trump administration are currently in doubt as a result of litigation. In addition, the Biden administration announced last month that it was reviewing the reinstatement and renewal of the Twin Metals leases.
In her letter to the secretaries, Smith stressed the conflicting values and interests at play in the region. “Mining is an essential part of who we are in northeastern Minnesota, and we are extremely proud that Minnesota’s Iron Range produces the ore to make American-made primary steel. Our region is also home to rich non-ferrous copper-nickel-sulfide ore deposits,” Smith wrote.
At the same time, she noted, the region that contains those sulfide deposits is within the watershed of both the BWCAW and Voyageurs National Park. “Minnesota’s north county is also blessed with rich and precious water resources and a wild country tourist industry that is also an essential part of the regional economy and identity. Minnesotans care deeply about the Boundary Waters and Voyageurs, and the tourism these amazing places generate is an important regional economic engine,” she wrote.
Smith’s concern is focused on the impact to water quality that sulfide mining could cause, which would directly affect the wilderness located just downstream. “When brought to the surface, sulfide ores create substantial and ongoing environmental risk, and the ecology of the watershed is known to be quite sensitive. We must weigh clear-headed science and comprehensive economic analysis as we decide how to proceed,” she wrote.
Smith’s letter has pleased environmental groups which have opposed copper-nickel mining within the watershed of the Boundary Waters.
“We believe this science-based environmental assessment will show decision-makers the Boundary Waters should be protected,” said Tom Landwehr, executive director of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters. “This is a critical step on the path to permanent protection.”
A spokesperson for Twin Metals sees it differently. Kathy Graul, Twin Metals’ manager of public relations, said in a statement that northeastern Minnesota minerals are needed for “our transition to a low-carbon future and will play an important role in bolstering our domestic supply chains.” Graul stated that the region contains 95 percent of known U.S. nickel reserves, 88 percent of the cobalt, 75 percent of the platinum group metals and 34 percent of the copper, and suggests that a mineral withdrawal would be contrary to President Biden’s recent executive order to bolster the nation’s supply chains of key materials.
Graul notes that Twin Metals is currently undergoing two separate environmental reviews, at both the state and federal level. “The only way to accurately assess the potential impacts of a mining project and its surroundings is through this rigorous, law-and-science-based regulatory review process,” she added.
Critics of the proposal note that environmental reviews are narrowly tailored to largely technical issues and are not designed to answer larger questions, such as whether it is sound public policy to allow a sulfide-based copper-nickel mine just upstream of the nation’s only water-based wilderness. Sulfide mines are known to create acid drainage that can significantly impact water quality.
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