Acknowledging that the kind of rock found in water-rich northeastern Minnesota can make copper-nickel mining "more challenging," Trump administration officials assured U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum at a congressional hearing Thursday that an environmental study on mining's potential effects in the region would be allowed to go forward.
When that review is completed in about two years, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke would then decide whether to issue a 20-year moratorium on mining over 234,000 acres of the Superior National Forest in the watershed of the Boundary Waters.
"We are determined to proceed in that effort and let it run its course," Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue told McCollum during a House Interior-Environment Appropriations Subcommittee hearing. "No decision will be made prior to the conclusion of that."
U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said mining can be done in a safe, environmentally sound way, and is an "essential part of multiple use" on the nation's forests. But he said the two-year study launched in January would help determine whether mining in some areas, including near the Boundary Waters, is "potentially maybe too hazardous."
The commitment to move ahead with the study, announced in the waning days of the Obama administration, comes shortly after U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, who represents northeastern Minnesota, along with U.S. Rep Tom Emmer, met with Secretary of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke on the issue.
In a statement Nolan said the environmental review "denies the opportunity for future mining projects before there is even a project to review — all without providing any additional environmental protections for the Boundary Waters and surrounding area."
When U.S. Forest Service officials first proposed the study and potential mining moratorium in December, they wrote that future potential mines in the Boundary Waters watershed "could lead to irreversible impacts upon natural resources."
At the same time, federal officials also declined to renew mineral leases held by the mining company Twin Metals, which for several years has been exploring and developing a potential underground copper-nickel mine near Ely. Early estimates projected that mine could create 850 jobs and operate for at least 30 years.
Twin Metals has sued the federal government over the denial of those leases. Nolan has also lobbied for them to be renewed, "just as they have been without controversy in the past," he said in a statement.
Nolan's efforts in support of Twin Metals have rankled Becky Rom of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, which supports the environmental review. "He's putting at risk this great national treasure," she said.
The U.S. Forest Service held a public meeting in Duluth in March to solicit input on what topics the environmental review should cover.
Federal officials have also said a meeting will be held in Ely, and McCollum said Forest Service staff have confirmed an additional meeting will be held in the Twin Cities.
No dates have been set for those hearings. The public comment period has been extended until Aug. 11.
"So this gives us a chance to be able to pause, collect the information, to be able to visit, and really meet with the public," Tidwell said.
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