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will be no new mineral exploration or development for two years while the agencies study whether those lands should be withdrawn for twenty years.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.
WRITTEN BY: Hudson Kingston, MCEA Staff Attorney
Minnesotans care about clean water. While some Americans have been waking up to water pollution dangers in light of unprecedented demonstrations against pipeline projects, in our state it has long been an issue of concern that folks are willing to speak up about.
Now is a great time to do just that. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), after getting challenged by MCEA, has opened a comment period on a proposed draft permit for the biggest taconite mine in the state. This permit has not been re-issued for 29 years, and it is showing its age. Even the proposed updated permit leaves much to be desired.
The MPCA needs to hear from you, and how you expect them to uphold the law and issue a modern permit that follows the Clean Water Act and protects Minnesota resources. Write to them today to tell them that they need to protect all watersheds impacted by this facility from all pollutants coming out of the Minntac facility under the permit. Tell them the importance of Minnesota’s waters to you, and the value you place on clean water that serves the needs of people as drinking water, fosters wild rice and trout, and supports other wildlife and human uses.
Write a comment to firstname.lastname@example.org before December 16th in order to have your concerns heard.
Environmental permits are meant to prevent our historically dangerous unchecked pollution
Back in 1960s America, rivers occasionally lit on fire, smog in LA was so thick that people wore gas masks and cried uncontrollably due to regular pollution levels stinging their lungs and eyes. It was bad!
After well-known spills and resulting lawsuits, both the public and the polluting industries came together to call for groundbreaking laws that finally controlled the emissions of dangerous pollutants. On the public's side, they were tired of dangerous pollution; on the industry's side, they were worried that they would be put out of business without some certainty about what they were actually allowed to do. Our current environmental permitting system followed.
MPCA’s failure to regulate the mining industry’s water problems
MPCA has not upheld its part of the deal on permitting. The Minntac mine and tailngs basin were built before the Clean Water Act amendments of 1972, but the facility was subject to the new law and received its first permit in 1987. That permit expired in 1992, and Minnesota still hasn’t issued an updated version. Far from issuing a new permit every five years, Minnesota has sat on an expired permit for 24 years. Minntac’s permit is now 29-years-old, with pollution limits that were weak in the 1980s.
For more information about our case, please visit our Mining page!
WRITTEN BY: Allison Wolf, Legislative Director
Thanksgiving week gives MCEA the chance to offer up our gratitude: to our supporters across the state, our Board members, our staff (past and present) and our terrific volunteers.
It is also a good time to thank elected officials who have helped us make environmental progress at the Capitol. With newly elected legislators moving into the House and Senate buildings, we bid farewell to many talented and dedicated environmental heroes who are returning to private life.
We will miss Senator Katie Sieben (DFL-Cottage Grove), who was an enthusiastic champion for clean water, public health, and public parks. She authored MCEA’s Environmental Health Tracking bill, and received our “Shoot the Rapids” award for that work.
Senator Bev Scalze (DFL-Little Canada), will also be missed. We thank Senator Scalze for supporting the protection of wetlands and working hard for the Governor’s new law requiring buffer strips to filter out contaminants. Senator Scalze was also known for her excellent work as co-chair of the Legislative Water Commission.
Senator Matt Schmitt (DFL-Red Wing), tackled the difficult issue of frac sand mining in his first session, working to pass legislation that, among other things, provided special protection for sensitive trout streams. It is tough to see someone leave the Senate who has as much potential as does Senator Schmit.
The Minnesota House is losing three scientists: Representatives Kahn, Yarusso, and Persell. MCEA will miss these three, who brought their training in biophysics, chemical engineering, and biology to their legislative work. MCEA will miss hearing their voices on the House floor, where they were known to rise to explain technical matters to the rest of the House of Representatives.
Representative Phyllis Kahn (DFL-Minneapolis) is leaving after serving 22 terms in the House. Her Yale University Ph.D. in biophysics and broad scientific knowledge made her an important voice on environmental matters. MCEA is especially grateful for Representative Kahn’s leadership in protecting the Clean Water Fund dollars.
The House is losing another Ph.D. scientist, chemical engineer Barb Yarusso (DFL-Shoreview). Representative Yarusso will be sorely missed, and it would be hard to find another House member who does as much homework. When MCEA visited with her about the PolyMet environmental review documents, we were amazed to discover that she had already read the entire document of 2000+ pages!
Representative John Persell (DFL-Bemidji) is a biologist who has represented the Red Lake area for four terms. Representative Persell was a terrific partner on water quality issues. He carried MCEA’s Clean Water Accountability Act to passage in 2013, and received our “Shoot the Rapids” award.
The House is also losing Representative Joe Atkins (DFL-Inver Grove Heights). MCEA will miss his voice on climate change, and his playful sense of humor on the House floor. We are grateful to Representative Atkins for carrying MCEA’s legislation to address high-potential greenhouse gases.
While these environmental champions are bidding adieu to the Capitol, we hope that they will remain active in Minnesota policy, and wish them all the best in their post-legislative endeavors. Godspeed!