The U.S. Forest Service announced Friday it will not prepare a full-blown environmental impact statement on a proposal to impose a 20-year mining ban in the watershed of the Boundary Waters.
Instead, the Superior National Forest will instead complete a less rigorous "environmental assessment," a move praised by industry groups who argue an environmental study is premature, but panned by environmental groups and Gov. Mark Dayton who say it will result in a less rigorous scientific analysis and offer less opportunity for public comment.
At issue is a proposal announced in the waning days of the Obama administration to place a moratorium on any new mining projects on 234,000 acres of forest service land within the drainage area that flows toward the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
The Forest Service at the time argued the so-called "mineral withdrawal," was justified because future potential copper-nickel mines in the watershed of the BWCA "could lead to irreversible impacts upon natural resources," and also expressed concern over "the perpetual treatment of water discharge" that "would likely be required" at potential future mines.
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But now, because the Forest Service is proposing to ban new mining projects for 20 years--a move that would not result in any significant environmental impacts--the agency is instead opting for a less detailed review.
"While the science indicates significant environmental impacts are unlikely to result from the proposed withdrawal, I am deeply aware of the controversy regarding socioeconomic implications," said Superior National Forest Supervisor Connie Cummins.
The Forest Service expects to complete the study late this year. The Bureau of Land Management would then rely on the study to develop a recommendation on the proposed mining moratorium for Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke.
Zinke then would decide whether to move ahead with the moratorium by January 2019, which is when a two-year time out on any new mineral leasing in the area is set to expire.
Opponents of mining near the Boundary Waters argue a more detailed environmental impact statement, or EIS, should be completed to better inform Zinke's decision, and to allow for more public input.
"The concern we have is that the EIS would have included rigorous scientific analysis of the potential harm of sulfide ore copper mining on Superior National Forest lands next to the Boundary Waters," said Becky Rom, national chair of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters.
Rom said simpler environmental analyses are usually completed for less complicated and less controversial situations.
The Forest Service said it will prepare a more rigorous EIS if the environmental analysis reveals significant environmental impacts.
The agency altered course after receiving more than 90,000 comments on the proposed mining moratorium over a seven-month period, which it said "represented the full range of public sentiment, from strong support to strong opposition."
The Forest Service said it will now accept additional comments until Feb. 28.
"This decision is a significant step in the right direction," said Frank Ongaro, executive director of Mining Minnesota, which represents copper-nickel mining companies in the region.
Ongaro said the agency's decision reflects what his group has been saying all along: "There's no significant impact on the environment from the withdrawal or from exploration.
He and others in the mining industry have argued the appropriate time to analyze environmental impacts of mining in the region is when and if specific mining projects are proposed.
The Trump administration made another move last month that could help eventually pave the way for mining within the Superior National Forest south of the Boundary Waters.
It reversed a decision made by the Obama administration to not renew mineral leases held by Twin Metals, which is pursuing a major underground copper-nickel mine near Ely.
Opponents have said they are exploring lawsuits to reverse that decision.
But that would allow Twin Metals to continue to pursue a mine even if a 20-year mining moratorium were to be put in place.
But a moratorium, or mineral withdrawal, if it's approved, would block other companies currently exploring for minerals in the Boundary Waters watershed from developing mining proposals for 20 years.
Mining proponents have argued that developing copper-nickel mines in the region could add an enormous boost to the regional economy. Twin Metals alone has projected a mine that could create 650 full-time jobs over 30 years.
But critics, including Dayton, have argued that the watershed of the nation's most water-rich and most popular wilderness is the last place to develop copper-nickel mines, which in western states have often led to severe water pollution.
"I urge the Administration to disclose who persuaded it to steamroll responsible review and protection of this priceless natural resource in favor of copper-nickel mining profits," Dayton said.