Twin Metals to appeal federal decision on proposed mine, says project still viable

The forest and Kawishiwi River are seen in this aerial photo.
The Kawishiwi River flows in June 2019 near Ely, Minn. Twin Metals is proposing to build an underground copper-nickel mine near Ely and close to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News 2019

The company vying to build an underground copper-nickel mine outside Ely says it will fight a federal rejection of its applications for additional mineral leases and exploration permits near its proposed mine site just south of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Twin Metals Minnesota says it will appeal the Bureau of Land Management’s decision to reject what are known as preference right lease applications and prospecting permit applications.

This latest move from the Biden administration comes shortly after a related announcement last week, when the government ordered a mineral withdrawal study on 225,000 acres of federal land that could lead to a 20-year ban on mining upstream from the Boundary Waters, a popular recreational area in the Superior National Forest.

The rejection of the applications is both politically motivated and completely unnecessary, said Julie Padilla, Twin Metals chief regulatory officer.

“This tells us that the federal government has no intention to listen to science, and it also makes clear that opponents of copper-nickel mining are afraid that the established environmental review process already underway for our project would show that a modern copper-nickel mine can be safe for the environment and should be permitted.”

Padilla said the move to reject the applications is a departure from what happened under the Obama administration when it proposed a similar mineral withdrawal in 2016.

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“Those applications certainly could have just stayed in place while they did a study,” Padilla said. “It gives us the sense that this…is a predetermined withdrawal, and that they expect to publish their subjective study as quickly as they can.”

According to Padilla, the mineral leases contained in the application rejected by the federal government constituted about one-third of the area of land included in the mine plan of operation that Twin Metals submitted to state and federal regulators nearly two years ago.

Despite that, Padilla said the company still has a project that is “economically viable,” made up of its existing federal leases, as well as state and private leases.

She said the company plans to continue to push that project forward while it appeals this recent federal decision.

But opponents of Twin Metals have argued that the decision to block additional leases kills the proposed mine. They point to a 2018 BLM document that says mining in the Superior National Forest is “not economically feasible” without the additional leases. Padilla, though, says it’s unclear where the BLM got that information.

Meanwhile, several environmental groups have sued to overturn Twin Metals’ two existing leases, which were revoked by the Obama administration, and then returned and subsequently renewed under former President Trump.

Becky Rom, who directs the Save the Boundary Waters Campaign, said she’s confident Twin Metals will be blocked. But she said the proposed 20-year mining ban is only a first step.

“It should be permanent, we should be able to rest soundly at night knowing that we have protected our beloved canoe country wilderness,” Rom said. “The scientific study that the Forest Service will complete really should be a springboard for congressional action.”

When Twin Metals, which is owned by the Chilean mining giant Antofagasta, submitted its formal mine plan to federal and state regulators in 2019, the company said its design would prevent any acid drainage from the sulfide-bearing ore and protect the wilderness from pollution.

Environmental groups disputed that claim and challenged the lease renewals in court.

They argue that the mineral withdrawal study is an appropriate step to first determine whether the headwaters of the Boundary Waters is an appropriate place for this kind of mining.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.