Feds propose 20-year mining moratorium in the watershed of the Boundary Waters

Green grass and trees are seen beyond a locked gate.
This area of forest near the Kawishiwi River and Birch Lake — just outside the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness — is where Twin Metals wants to build much of its infrastructure for its mining operations.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News 2019

President Joe Biden’s administration announced Wednesday it will restart a process that could lead to a 20-year ban on new mining activity for over 225,000 acres of federal land near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness — potentially dealing a major blow to the proposed Twin Metals copper-nickel mine near Ely.

The U.S. Forest Service filed an application for what’s known as a mineral withdrawal with the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the mineral rights underneath the roughly 350 square miles of public lands in the watershed of the Boundary Waters that the ban would cover. 

The process begins with a study of the potential environmental and socio-economic impacts of copper-nickel mining in the area, which includes a two-year freeze on mining-related activity while the review is taking place. 

After that study is complete, Department of the Interior Secretary Deb Haaland would then decide whether to order the 20-year withdrawal. 

“A place like the Boundary Waters should be enjoyed by and protected for everyone, not only today but for future generations,” said Haaland in a statement. “Today the Biden Administration is taking an important and sensible step to ensure that we have all the science and the public input necessary to make informed decisions about how mining activities may impact this special place.”

Twin Metals Minnesota said it is deeply disappointed with the federal government’s action. "We are working to determine the best path forward to continue advancing our proposed world-class underground copper, nickel, cobalt and platinum group metals mine," said the company in a statement.

President Barack Obama’s administration initially recommended a 20-year mining moratorium in late 2016, citing the potential environmental risks to the Boundary Waters if copper-nickel mines were allowed to open in the watershed. The U.S. Forest Service began an environmental review of the proposal. 

But the Trump administration halted that process after 20 months, and despite subsequent calls from the Minnesota DNR and members of Congress, including Minnesota Senator Tina Smith, the results of the study haven’t been released. 

This decision does not affect the two federal mineral leases that Twin Metals currently holds just south of the Boundary Waters, about 7 miles from Ely. 

A man speaks in front of a map.
Friends of the Boundary Waters executive director Chris Knopf speaks to the press at the Friends of the Boundary Waters offices in St. Paul, Minn., on Wednesday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

The Obama administration revoked those leases in 2016, but the Trump administration reversed that decision, and renewed them for an additional 10 years. Those leases are the foundation of a proposed mine plan that Twin Metals submitted to state and federal regulators two years ago. Environmental groups are challenging them in court. 

“This is a great first step on the pathway to permanent protection,” said Becky Rom, national chair of the Save the Boundary Waters campaign, about the Biden administration's announcement. 

“The appropriate next step for the administration is to revoke the two Twin Metals leases that the Trump administration unlawfully reinstated."

It’s unclear if the proposed mining moratorium would stop Twin Metals from proceeding. Twin Metals has applications pending for additional leases and prospecting permits that would be affected by a mineral withdrawal. 

Dean Debeltz wears a yellow hardhat as he stands in a warehouse.
Dean Debeltz, Twin Metals director of operations and safety, talks about the thousands of core samples stored in the company's core shed in 2019 at the company's offices in Ely, Minn.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News 2019

Mining advocates argue that mining companies should be allowed to submit project proposals to state and federal officials, who then analyze those specific projects to determine whether they can meet environmental standards. 

“Minnesota already has a thorough and stringent process in place where each mine project is vetted and studied prior to permits being issued,” said Ida Rukavina, executive director of the Range Association of Municipalities and Schools, which represents cities and school districts on the Iron Range. “This is a duplicative and unnecessary step.”

Twin Metals Minnesota has spent $500 million and more than a decade developing its underground mining proposal. 

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