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Ex-DNR chief takes aim at Twin Metals mine project near Boundary Waters

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DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr
Former Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr speaks to reporters during a press conference in November when he announced the DNR had issued permits for PolyMet Mining's proposed copper-nickel mine in northeastern Minnesota, a huge step forward for the controversial project.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Updated: 7 p.m. | Posted: 1:07 p.m.

The environmental group spearheading the campaign against a copper-nickel mine project on the doorstep of the Boundary Waters has hired Minnesota's former Department of Natural Resources commissioner as its executive director.

Ely-based Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness has tapped Tom Landwehr to lead the organization, which runs the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, an initiative founded in 2013 to fight copper-nickel mining within the watershed of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. It has focused since then on Twin Metals Minnesota's proposed mine, which would be located just outside Ely, Minn.

Landwehr joins the effort at a crucial time in the Twin Metals proposal process. The company is vying to build a massive underground copper-nickel mine just outside the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. 

If approved, it would likely become Minnesota's second copper-nickel mining project — after the state approved the PolyMet project, which would also be located in northern Minnesota — and the first within the Boundary Waters watershed.

In the waning days of the Obama administration, the federal government rescinded key mineral leases in the Superior National Forest that are critical to Twin Metals' bid to open its mine. The U.S. Forest Service at the time also proposed a 20-year moratorium on any new mining projects within the Boundary Waters watershed.

But since then, the Trump administration has taken several steps to reverse those actions. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management returned the mineral leases to Twin Metals and started the process to grant the company a 10-year extension. 

It also canceled the environmental review that had been launched to study the proposed mining ban, a process mining opponents say was critical to making an informed decision about whether the Boundary Waters watershed is an appropriate place to mine. 

"Federal agency leadership in D.C. are ignoring laws and policies in order to push this project through," Landwehr said in a news release Tuesday. "Those laws and policies are intended to protect people and the environment, and I simply can't stand by and watch that." 

Once it officially receives its new leases, Twin Metals, a subsidiary of the Chilean mining giant Antofagasta, has said it plans to file a formal mine plan of operations to state and federal regulators sometime this year, a step which would prompt an environmental review of the project. 

At the center of the PolyMet storm

A core sample drilled from underground rock near Ely, Minn.
A core sample drilled from underground rock near Ely, Minn., shows a band of shiny minerals containing copper, nickel and precious metals, center, that Twin Metals Minnesota LLC, hopes to mine near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northeastern Minnesota.
Steve Karnowski | AP 2011

Neither Landwehr's reputation nor his track record have positioned him as a likely leader of the Twin Metals opposition. He's not an anti-mining activist; his background is rooted in wildlife and conservation. And not long ago, he found himself at the center of another debate over another copper-nickel mine proposed for northern Minnesota — and his work allowed that project to move forward.

Last year, after nearly 15 years of study and intense public debate, Landwehr's DNR approved the proposed PolyMet copper-nickel mine, which if built would become the state's first-ever copper-nickel mining operation. PolyMet plans to dig an open pit mine near Babbitt, Minn., and process the ore at a retired taconite plant outside Hoyt Lakes.

The controversial decision was the culmination of one of the most heated environmental debates in Minnesota in recent memory. It pitted environmentalists fearful of the potentially severe impacts of copper-nickel mining on the region's waterways against advocates yearning for the high-paying jobs and regional economic impact the $1 billion project could bring. 

The PolyMet project isn't a done deal yet. While the company waits for its final federal permits, the project also faces several court challenges. 

But the long environmental review and permitting process that Landwehr shepherded through state bureaucracy was the key approval the project needed to move forward.

"As commissioner, you sort of check your personal biases and your personal opinions at the door," Landwehr said, "you come into that job as a person who follows the laws and the rules of the state of Minnesota."

Landwehr's role in the PolyMet project positioned him as someone who could navigate the complex and divisive process mining proposals must go through to determine whether they can meet state standards. 

And now, in his new role at Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness, Landwehr has thrust himself into the center of another contentious debate over the prospect of copper-nickel mining in northeastern Minnesota. 

The Twin Metals project's proximity to the Boundary Waters has raised the question of whether exploiting the rich economic potential of one of the world's largest known deposits of copper, nickel and precious metals is worth the risk of causing potentially grave environmental harm to one of the state's — and the nation's — wilderness treasures. 

Landwehr is no stranger to walking the line between using and preserving Minnesota's natural resources. During his eight years leading the DNR, he was responsible for upholding the agency's dual mandate of managing the state's natural resources for industry and recreation, and preserving those resources for the future.

He said he believes that people should be willing to develop the resources in their own communities that are needed in modern society. 

Twin Metals
Twin Metals' Ely, Minn. headquarters displays a few of the various types of elements that they hope to pull from a proposed mine near Ely, Minn.
Derek Montgomery for MPR

"People don't acknowledge that we need copper and nickel, we need these precious metals, and much of what's being produced right now is coming from third-world countries where they don't have environmental protections, concern for human welfare and human rights."

He's not anti-mining, Landwehr argued. "I just believe that there are certain places where we can't even consider mining."

PolyMet versus Twin Metals

Landwehr said the motivation to take on his new role fighting the Twin Metals project is personal. 

"When I first saw the project proposal early on in my career as commissioner, I was just floored," he said. "I was just absolutely stunned to see that this project was that close to the Boundary Waters, and it was that close to Ely, right off of Highway 1, and right under Birch Lake."

While Twin Metals hasn't yet filed its plan for the underground mine, it has estimated it would dig 20,000 tons of copper-nickel ore per day for 30 years, and employ around 650 people.

The mine would be located south of Ely, next to Birch Lake and the South Kawishiwi River, just a few miles south of the Boundary Waters. It would be outside the protected wilderness area, but within the watershed that flows into it.

It's also very near Landwehr's favorite Boundary Waters entry point: Little Gabbro Lake. Landwehr said he's visited the spot every year for the past decade: "So not only was I familiar with the area, but it was very disturbing to see that that was the location for the project."

Landwehr said there are several key distinctions between the Twin Metals project and the PolyMet project, which he greenlit in November during his tenure as DNR commissioner. 

DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr
Former Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr speaks to reporters during a press conference as permits for the PolyMet Mining proposed copper-nickel mine are on display.
Evan Frost | MPR News

First, though they're only about a dozen miles apart, they're located in different watersheds. Potential pollution from Twin Metals would flow northward into the Boundary Waters; water that runs off the PolyMet site would flow into the St. Louis River. 

That's become a key dividing line in the debate over mining in northeast Minnesota. Gov. Dayton supported PolyMet after it cleared the state's environmental review that was led in part by Landwehr, but he has adamantly opposed copper-nickel mining within the Boundary Waters watershed. Gov. Tim Walz has called Twin Metals a "different animal" than PolyMet. 

But Chris Knopf, executive director of Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, says he's dismayed by Landwehr's new leadership role, given the part he played in issuing state permits to PolyMet. Knopf said opposition groups shouldn't make a distinction between the two projects, and should be fighting both Twin Metals and PolyMet. 

"They present a similar risk to water resources for Minnesota," he said. "And the distinction between the two is artificial. Lake Superior is worthy of protection and the Boundary Waters is worthy of protection."

But beyond the difference in watersheds, Landwehr and others who make a distinction between the two projects argue they also require different levels of disruption to the surrounding environment. 

The PolyMet site is located in an existing mining area, adjacent to an operating taconite mine. And the company plans to repurpose a retired taconite mine's processing plant and tailings basin. 

The proposed Twin Metals site, by contrast, is covered by forest, lakes and rivers, not existing mining infrastructure, Landwehr said. 

"It is just such a fragile site from the potential for human damages right on the edge of the Boundary Waters," Landwehr said. "They are two completely different sites, and this is one of those places where you have to say, 'Not this mine, not this site, not now, not ever.'"

The Save the Boundary Waters campaign

The Save the Boundary Waters campaign launched in 2013 to fight copper-nickel mining in the Superior National Forest south of the wilderness area. It set its targets on the Twin Metals proposal, and any other projects that might follow.  

Becky Rom, a retired Twin Cities attorney who grew up in Ely, spearheaded the effort. Rom's father was one of Ely's first canoe outfitters, and endured protests from locals in the 1970s when the wilderness area was first created. 

From the start, the Save the Boundary Waters campaign differed from other efforts to fight copper-nickel mining in Minnesota. It focuses specifically on mining near the Boundary Waters and not PolyMet, which when the organization began was much further along in its process. 

Twin Metals public listening session
Signs supporting mining and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness reside next to each other before a Twin Metals lease renewal public listening session July 2016
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

The group also made its campaign national, enlisting the support of environmental organizations across the country and lobbying the Obama administration to make copper-nickel mining off limits in the BWCAW watershed. 

The group has grown to include 13 staffers and operates with a budget of $2.5 million. 

But it's also proven incredibly divisive in Ely, a former iron ore mining town where many local leaders support Twin Metals. Supporters of the project argue the company should be given a chance to submit its mine plan, and work through the permitting process to see if it can demonstrate that it could mine safely in the area without harming the environment. 

Supporters say Twin Metals could be the first of possibly several new copper-nickel mines in the Superior National Forest south of the Boundary Waters. They see the potential for a new mining industry not far from the state's Iron Range, that could revitalize the region, pump tens of millions of dollars into the economy, and create hundreds — if not thousands — of direct, high-paying jobs and other spinoff economic activity.

Landwehr presents himself as a new kind of leader for the campaign, someone who echoes some of the arguments made by mining supporters. He said it's hard to ignore the increasing demand for the minerals embedded in Minnesota rock — but that extracting it needs to be done thoughtfully.  

"I've always felt if we're going to have a demand for these materials, that we ought to be willing to, in the appropriate places, be mining the materials ourselves," he said.

Still, he acknowledges he faces an uphill battle in trying to stop Twin Metals, which he said is his clear priority in his new position. 

That task was made more difficult  when the Trump administration moved to return the federal mineral leases to Twin Metals. Once that process is finalized and the company submits its formal mine plan, which company officials have said they plan to do later this year, "it becomes much more of a real threat," Landwehr said. 

At that point, the Twin Metals project would enter the same legal permitting process the state must follow, as it did with PolyMet. 

"The agencies don't have the latitude of saying, 'Well, we just don't like this project, we're not going to put it in process,'" Landwehr said. "Now it's on the starting line."

Mining proponents argue that's exactly how the process should work. State law requires Minnesota to develop its mineral resources for the benefit of the state. 

So proponents say companies like Twin Metals should be allowed to submit their mining plans.

"Then and only then can the environmental review be done appropriately to look at what a mine plan does or doesn't have in order to assess impacts on the environment," said Frank Ongaro, who leads the industry group Mining Minnesota.

And if state regulators deem they can meet environmental standards, proponents say, then they should be permitted. Ongaro said that, from the perspective of the mining industry, Landwehr's new role doesn't change anything. 

Landwehr said he doesn't underestimate the challenge of stopping Twin Metals, part of a multinational corporation with billions of dollars of revenue and far-reaching political influence. 

But he said, for him, the reason for the fight is simple.

"We wouldn't dig a huge mine next to Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon," he said, "and we shouldn't dig one next to the Boundary Waters."

Twin Metals says it plans to submit its formal mining plan sometime this year. And Landwehr will again be a key player in the middle of another Minnesota mining controversy.