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Feds halt Twin Metals plan for Minn. copper mine near Boundary Waters

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Twin Metals public listening session
Supporters of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness listen to speakers against the Twin Metals project before a public listening session about the renewal of mineral leases in this July 13, 2016 file photo.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News File

Updated: 5 p.m. | Posted: 10:30 a.m.

The federal government dealt a major blow Thursday to one of two proposed copper mines in northeast Minnesota. The U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management refused to renew mineral leases held that Twin Metals Minnesota says it needs to build a huge underground copper-nickel mine just a few miles from Ely and the Boundary Waters. 

The government also launched a process that could lead to a 20-year ban on new mining near the Boundary Waters. 

"We're concerned about the impacts of copper nickel mining in sulfide deposits, because there is extensive research that shows that should impacts occur, it would be virtually impossible to mitigate those impacts," said Kathleen Atkinson, a regional forester with the U.S. Forest Service.

Twin Metals says the decision is a devastating blow to the future economic vitality of northeast Minnesota. The company has projected the mine could create 850 jobs and operate for at least 30 years. 

"We believe the action taken by the Bureau of Land Management is contrary to federal law," said company spokesperson Bob McFarlin. "We've already filed suit, earlier this year, challenging the authority of the bureau to make such a decision. That lawsuit will continue. We believe we will prevail."

Ely Mayor Chuck Novak called the decision "deflating." 

"It takes the hope out from all the people who looked for a brighter future with great paying jobs, family, living wages, a boost to the economy," he said.

The federal government's related move could have impacts far beyond the decision on Twin Metals' leases. The agencies initiated a process that could block any new mineral permits and leases in the watershed of the Boundary Waters for 20 years. That would cover an area of 234,000 acres in the Superior National Forest. 

The proposal doesn't impact the PolyMet Mining project, about 20 miles to the south, in a different watershed. But Frank Ongaro, Executive Director of Mining Minnesota, says such a move would impact several other mining companies exploring for copper, nickel and precious metals near the BWCA. 

"All this does is chase investment away from the U.S., and makes us more dependent on foreign governments for our metals," Ongaro said. "It has nothing to do with a project, nothing to do with science, and everything to do with politics. Nothing but political B.S."

Politicians were quick to weigh in. Minnesota House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, called the decision an attempt "to kill all the mining projects they can while the lame-duck Obama administration is still in office." 

Dayton said he's pushing to create jobs in northeast Minnesota. But "this is one exception where the danger to a priceless treasure, the Boundary Waters, is just too great in my judgment to bear that risk," he said.

Meanwhile the Interior Department plans to call a "time-out" on mineral development in the area for up to two years, while it conducts an environmental review of the proposed moratorium.

Becky Rom of Ely, who's national chair of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, says that will give Minnesotans and people from around the country a chance to weigh in. 

"There will be a comprehensive look at science...the science of the water, the forests, the whole ecosystem, to understand what the risk would be with introducing a toxic industry like copper mining in this place," she said.

Rom says it would then be up to the next secretary of the interior to decide on the 20-year ban. And she says despite the change in administration, she's hopeful. She says protection of the Boundary Waters is not a partisan issue. 

"They understand that there are very special places in America that should be off limits," she said.

It's unclear whether Twin Metals' leases could be overturned by the incoming Trump administration. Or if they can be, how quickly that could occur. What is clear is that the often-contentious debate over the future of copper mining in northeast Minnesota is still far from over.