Here at MCEA, we were thrilled to learn about the federal actions taken to protect the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness from the threats of sulfide mining. We support efforts to protect this priceless resource and national treasure. In taking these actions, the federal government has made a strong statement that mineral ores are not the only economic resource at stake in the controversies over sulfide mining in Minnesota.
We strongly agree with the federal government’s conclusion that the threat of acid mine drainage is well established by the best available science, and that contamination from sulfide mining in a water-based environment like Northern Minnesota “could have dramatic impacts to aquatic life, sport fisheries, and recreation-based uses and communities.”
We sat down with our mining attorney, Kevin Lee, to learn more about these actions.
Q. So what exactly happened?
A. There were two actions taken on December 15th by two different federal agencies. First, the U.S. Forest Service declined to consent to the renewal of two mineral leases currently held by Twin Metals Minnesota on lands located adjacent to the Boundary Waters. The Forest Service concluded that the threat of serious harm to the “unique, iconic and irreplaceable wilderness area” was far more consequential than any economic benefits from the mining itself. Because the Forest Service would not consent to the lease renewal, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) rejected Twin Metals’ renewal application. Second, the Forest Service made a request to the BLM to withdraw key areas of the Boundary Waters watershed from new mineral permits and leases. There will be no new mineral exploration or development for two years while the agencies study whether those lands should be withdrawn for twenty years.
Q. Does this decision ban copper-nickel mining near the Boundary Waters?
A. Not exactly, but it is a huge step toward that goal. These decisions affect new mineral leases and development, but existing mineral rights are unaffected. If the agencies conclude that withdrawal of these lands from new mineral development makes sense, it can only withdraw them for twenty years. Permanent withdrawals can only be accomplished by a new federal law passed by Congress. These agency actions do send a very strong statement, however, that the environmental threats posed by mining those lands and the economic losses from recreation are much more serious than the economic benefits from the mining itself.
Q. Why was the BLM involved? Isn’t this Forest Service land?
A. BLM handles the mineral rights at stake here, but by law they cannot allow development of those mineral rights without the consent of the Secretary of Agriculture, who runs the U.S. Forest Service and the Superior National Forest, where the leases are located. So while it’s all federal land, owned by all of us, the surface rights are managed by the Forest Service while subsurface minerals are controlled by BLM. The two agencies cooperate on decisions that affect how these lands are used.
Q. How did the Forest Service and BLM come to these decisions?
A. In June of 2016 the BLM asked the Forest Service to make a decision on whether to consent to renewing Twin Metals’ mineral leases. Public input was overwhelming—the Forest Service conducted two public listening sessions in Duluth and Ely, and received over 30,000 written public comments on its decision. After reviewing that public input and the best available science, the agencies concluded that the economic benefits of sulfide mining are not worth the risks of environmental contamination and economic losses from recreation and tourism. The federal agencies concluded that the evidence clearly shows the waters of northeastern Minnesota are especially sensitive to pollution from acid mine drainage, and that the sulfide mines proposed by Twin Metals are “known worldwide” for producing water contamination that requires perpetual water treatment. The agencies looked at similar mining projects and found that 100% of them experienced accidental releases of contaminated water, and 92% of them had water treatment system failures. Tellingly, the agencies concluded that no matter how much analysis and planning is done for a mine project, you can never be certain that severe accidents or systems failures won’t happen. With sulfide mining, the risks of serious water pollution will always be there, no matter how much planning and study you do.
Q. Can the incoming administration reverse these actions?
A. That’s impossible to predict at this point, but I can say that it would be very hard to reverse course. Incoming administrations cannot simply wave their hands and make laws and regulations go away. The agencies have reviewed the science and concluded that the risks of acid mine drainage are particularly serious in northeastern Minnesota. A reversal of that conclusion could be challenged in court if the agencies couldn’t point to specific reasons why it had changed its mind. Nothing is certain, of course, but we do know that those that won this victory are not likely to sit by idly if the new administration takes steps to open up the Boundary Waters watershed to new mining development.
Q. Does this decision affect Polymet?
A. No. Polymet has the mineral leases it needs to mine, and has already applied for permits to allow it to begin open pit mining near Hoyt Lakes. Polymet’s NorthMet mine project is much further along in the permitting process than the Twin Metals project. The NorthMet project is on the other side of the Laurentian divide, so water from Polymet’s mine site would flow into the St. Louis River and Lake Superior, although there is some evidence suggesting that, under certain conditions, it could actually flow northward into the Boundary Waters watershed. But BLM’s decision to take a ‘time out’ on mining proposals does not apply to Polymet’s project, so the permitting processes currently underway will proceed as before. We believe that Lake Superior deserves the same protections as the Boundary Waters, so MCEA will play a critical role in those processes.