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Two-year copper-nickel mining study could get new life

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 10/1/19

REGIONAL— The two-year study of the impacts of copper-nickel mining on the edge of the Boundary Waters could have new life if the U.S. House and a bipartisan group of U.S. Senators have their way. …

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Two-year copper-nickel mining study could get new life


REGIONAL— The two-year study of the impacts of copper-nickel mining on the edge of the Boundary Waters could have new life if the U.S. House and a bipartisan group of U.S. Senators have their way.

Senators Tom Udall, a New Mexico Democrat, and Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, both announced their support late last week for a provision approved by the U.S. House earlier this year that would require the Trump administration to complete the study, which it abruptly cancelled last year.

Both Udall and Alexander sit on the Appropriations subcommittee that oversees funding for the Interior Department and environmental agencies.

In June, the Democratically-controlled House included a provision in a $37 billion Interior Department appropriations bill that would require the administration to complete the study, which was examining the potential impacts of a proposed 20-year moratorium on mineral leasing on about 234,000 acres of federal land within the Superior National Forest. The measure was not a part of a $38.1 billion Interior Department funding package approved last week in the Senate, but with a majority of senators on the subcommittee that drafted the spending bill, and both of Minnesota’s U.S. Senators, now backing the study, the measure stands a good chance of being included in the final package once House and Senate negotiators meet to hash out differences between the two versions.

Udall, who will be a member of the conference committee, announced he would push for the inclusion of the House language to complete the mining study. The House provision, in part, states: “Accordingly, the Committee directs the Secretary of Agriculture, acting through the Forest Service, to reinstate and complete the Rainy River Watershed mineral withdrawal study in accordance with Section 204 of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, and to provide that study and all associated analysis to the Committee. Further, the Committee directs that the Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture shall take such actions as are necessary to segregate such lands during the period of study and forego taking any action that would advance mining within the watershed during the period of study and review.”

Udall, in announcing his support for completion of the study, criticized the Trump administration’s handling of the mine proposal. “This is an example of where this administration is taking a one-sided approach on behalf of the mining industry and it is wrong,” said Udall. “I know that in this instance, pushing back on the administration’s actions is a bipartisan priority and I understand that Senator Alexander joins me in supporting this amendment when we go to the conference and that’s a powerful message.” 

Sen. Alexander called the Boundary Waters “a spectacular wilderness,” and said he backs completion of the study prior to any decision to advance a mining proposal.

The Trump administration abruptly cancelled the study last year, just four months before its scheduled completion. The administration has since refused to release any of the preliminary results of the study, even to Congress. The administration had promised to complete the study, which began in the waning days of the Obama administration, but later reversed itself.

The U.S. Forest Service, in 2016, had announced that it would not consent to a proposal from Twin Metals to mine sulfide-based ore just upstream of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area due to concerns about the agency’s ability to protect water quality in the 1.1 million-acre wilderness given the high risks associated with sulfide-based mining. In announcing that decision, Forest Service officials stated that the mine plan presented a high risk of “irreparable harm” to the wilderness and its exceptional water quality. That announcement led to the cancellation of mineral leases that the Department of the Interior had originally issued back in 1966.

The Trump administration reversed those actions, cancelling the study and reissuing the cancelled leases. The administration also appeared to unilaterally overrule existing federal law by stripping the Forest Service of its right to approve or deny mining proposals on the Superior. A number of Minnesota businesses, including several from Ely, and the national Wilderness Society, have joined forces to challenge the administration’s actions in federal court. An initial decision in that case could come before the end of the year.

The Twin Metals venture is a wholly-owned subsidiary of international copper giant Antofagasta.


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