The proposal by Twin Metals Minnesota to build an underground copper-nickel mine near the Boundary Waters Wilderness has hit another–and potentially final–roadblock, thanks to the unified efforts of environmental advocates. But as long as companies see the possibility of exploiting these mineral deposits for profit, regardless of the risks to Minnesota’s rare and beloved wilderness, the threat of mining pollution will hang over the Boundary Waters. Twin Metals Minnesota has vowed that it will continue to fight for the project, and if it does so, MCEA will be there to defend Minnesota’s wild places.
Twin Metals Minnesota proposed building an underground copper-nickel mine next to Birch Lake, south of Ely, Minnesota, in an area where any pollution would flow into the Boundary Waters Wilderness. This watery wilderness is fragile, and any water pollution could devastate the area. Numerous environmental groups had fiercely fought to stop the project, and several times it appeared to have met a dead end. But the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) began environmental review for the project in 2020, and it continued to slowly move forward.
But then, in 2022, the Biden administration announced that federal mineral leases for the Twin Metals project had been improperly renewed, and it canceled those leases–meaning that Twin Metals no longer had the right to build its mine as planned. The following year, the Biden administration announced a 20-year moratorium on mining in 225,000 acres of the Superior National Forest that would protect the Boundary Waters from mining pollution. Although Twin Metals has brought a lawsuit to reinstate the leases, at this point the project cannot move forward.
The proposal has a long history with many ups and downs. In 1966, International Nickel Company (INCO) acquired two federal mineral leases, one near Birch Lake and the other along the Spruce Road, right up to the wilderness boundary. In the 1970’s, concern over pollution led to a four-year moratorium on copper mining, and a state study into copper-nickel mining pollution risks. Low prices for copper and other metals cooled interest in the deposit, and it lay fallow for years. But these leases remained, and eventually sprang to life as Twin Metals Minnesota.
In 2010, Canadian junior mining company Duluth Metals announced a joint venture with Chilean mining giant Antofagasta. Antofagasta later purchased Duluth Metals in its entirety, assuming 100% ownership.
In 2016, it looked like this proposal was dead, as the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management refused to extend the federal mineral leases. However, the Trump administration reversed these decisions and gave the leases back to Antofagasta. As Antofagasta pushed for state and federal regulators to move forward with environmental review, environmental groups including Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, and Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness brought a variety of legal challenges to the reinstatement of the leases, environmental review, and state mining rules.
Then, the Biden administration announced two actions–first, the cancellation of Twin Metals’ leases, and second a federal mineral withdrawal that would prohibit issuing new mineral leases in the Rainy River Headwaters. For now, the efforts of environmental advocates have successfully stopped the threat of Twin Metals mine pollution in the Boundary Waters.
Key Timeline Events
No new mineral leases for 20 years
The Biden administration announces it will not allow mineral leases on more than 225,000 acres of Superior National Forest, including the Boundary Waters, for the next 20 years. This move will prevent Twin Metals from obtaining additional mineral leases for its mine, even if its former leases are reinstated.
DNR stops environmental review
Based on the cancellation of Twin Metals’ federal mineral leases, DNR announces that it is stopping environmental review of the Twin Metals project. Twin Metals agrees to the halt but states it continues to evaluate next steps to move the proposal forward.
Biden administration announces cancellation of Twin Metals leases
The U.S. Department of the Interior announces that Twin Metals’ federal mineral leases were improperly renewed in 2019 by the Trump administration and cancels the leases. Without the mining leases, the proposal cannot move forward.
MCEA and Friends of the Boundary Waters comment on federal mineral withdrawal
In response to the U.S. Forest Service’s application for a federal mineral withdrawal in the Rainy River Headwaters watershed–which would prevent any new federal mineral leases from being issued near the Boundary Waters for a 20 year period–the U.S. Bureau of Land Management opens a comment period. MCEA and Friends of the Boundary Waters submit comments supporting the mineral withdrawal to protect the Boundary Waters and nearby federal forests. The federal mineral withdrawal would prevent Twin Metals from obtaining additional mining rights for its proposed mine.
MCEA comments on possibility of state rulemaking
In response to the Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness’s lawsuit asking for a rulemaking, DNR opens a comment period on whether the change to the rules is needed. MCEA submits comments arguing that the change is needed to prevent pollution in the Boundary Waters Wilderness.
Environmental Review scoping proceeds
MCEA and Friends of the Boundary Waters discuss the scope of state environmental review with DNR and submit written comments to DNR about what the environmental review should cover.
Federal agency begins environmental study, Minnesota DNR says application incomplete
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) announces that Twin Metals has submitted what it deems a complete mine plan of operations and announces it is beginning a federal environmental study. A week earlier, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), which is conducting a separate study under state law, determined that Twin Metals’ application was “incomplete.”
Federal district court upholds Twin Metals lease extension
Challenges to a third extension of the 1966 leases brought by the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness and the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters are dismissed by a federal judge. The groups appealed this ruling in April 2020 and that appeal is pending.
Twin Metals submits mine plan of operations to state and federal agencies
Twin Metals’ “mine plan of operations,” a description of its proposed mine, is sent to the Minnesota DNR and the BLM.
State and federal agencies announce each will conduct separate environmental reviews
Unlike the PolyMet proposal, where state and federal agencies created a single joint environmental impact statement, the Minnesota DNR and BLM announce that each will do separate studies under federal and state law.
BLM cancels mineral withdrawal study
Announcing it “found no new scientific information,” the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced it had ended the mineral withdrawal study after 20 months and reopened the area to mineral exploration.
BLM reverses course, announces intent to extend Twin Metals leases
After reversing a 2016 legal opinion, the BLM announces its intent to extend Twin Metals’ 1966 INCO leases for another 10 years. After conducting a cursory review, the BLM officially extended the leases for another decade in May 2019.
Bureau of Land Management starts study of mineral withdrawal and freezes mineral leasing for 2 years
In the waning days of the Obama administration, the BLM announces that it is halting mineral leasing and studying whether a 20 year moratorium on mineral leasing in the Boundary Waters watershed is needed to protect the wilderness. Several public hearings are held and tens of thousands of public comments opposed to mining near the wilderness are submitted.