Federal review says copper-nickel mining poses an environmental risk to BWCA

Canoes on the shore of a lake as the sun rises.
Canoes sit on the shore while the sun rises in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area on Sept. 22, 2018.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2018

The U.S. Forest Service has released a long-awaited environmental study of a proposed 20-year copper mining moratorium on federal land near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. It is the latest step in a bid by the Biden administration to place a long-term pause on proposed copper-nickel mines across a large swath of northeastern Minnesota. 

Members of the public now have 30 days to comment on the environmental assessment, which will then be forwarded to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and ultimately to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland. She will make the final decision whether to place about 350 square miles of northern Minnesota off-limits to new copper-nickel mines.

“Knowing that we are one step closer to a 20-year moratorium on toxic mining on federal land surrounding the Boundary Waters is reason to both celebrate and believe that science, the law, and the popular will, can prevail,” said Chris Knopf, executive director of Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, one of several groups fighting proposed copper-nickel mines in northern Minnesota. 

The 20-year “mineral withdrawal,” as it’s formally known, was first proposed in the waning days of the Obama administration. But the proposed moratorium was canceled under the Trump administration, and the unfinished environmental study was never released, despite calls from Congressional and state leaders. 

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Then, in October, the Biden administration again proposed to ban new copper mining in the region for 20 years, arguing it was needed to protect the Boundary Waters “from adverse environmental impacts” from mining.

Mining is already banned within the million acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, in a buffer strip around the wilderness border, and along the three major entry corridors into the wilderness.

This withdrawal would cover roughly 250,000 acres of Superior National Forest land that’s outside of those areas, but within the watershed of the BWCA. Groups fighting proposed mines have targeted the area of federal land south of the Boundary Waters because any water pollution released from new mines there could flow into the wilderness. 

Since proposing the mining moratorium, the Biden administration also canceled two federal mineral leases in the area held by Twin Metals Minnesota, which seeks to build an underground mine for copper, nickel and precious metals near Ely, just south of the Boundary Waters. 

Twin Metals has said it plans to fight the lease cancellation. If those leases aren’t given back to the company, and a mineral withdrawal is approved, no new mining on the site, on the shore of Birch Lake, would be allowed for 20 years.

The mineral withdrawal would not affect PolyMet Mining, the other copper-nickel project proposed so far in northern Minnesota, because it is located outside the watershed of the Boundary Waters. State regulators have approved that proposal on the far northeastern edge of the Iron Range, but it remains tied up in court and regulatory proceedings.

This new environmental study assesses the risks of new copper-nickel mining development in the region, and includes reports on a number of potential environmental and social impacts, including on the area’s socioeconomics, water and cultural resources, plants and wildlife, dark skies and soundscapes, and on the Boundary Waters wilderness. 

The report supports in more detail the position the Forest Service took when it first proposed the mining ban, that copper-nickel mining — which carries with it the risk for acid mine drainage and other severe water pollution — is incompatible in the watershed of a unique and fragile water-based wilderness like the Boundary Waters.  

As part of its review, the agency looked at 20 other copper-nickel mines across the U.S. and Canada, and found that all resulted in some level of environmental impacts, and that the environmental reviews of the projects frequently underestimated those impacts.

“Existing literature suggests that hardrock minerals mining of sulfide-bearing rock, no matter how it is conducted, poses a risk of environmental contamination due to the potential failure over time of engineered mitigation technology,” the report concludes.

Industry groups have long criticized the withdrawal and the environmental assessment, arguing that the only way to evaluate the environmental risks of mining in the region is to conduct an in-depth environmental impact statement of a specific, proposed mine. 

“Quite frankly, a new Costco going into a suburb can require more environmental review than an EA,” said Frank Ongaro, executive director of MiningMinnesota. “The EA has very little science, and does nothing but project a lot of hypotheticals onto a scenario.”

Ongaro accused the Biden administration of talking out of both sides of its mouth, for advocating for a domestic supply chain of critical minerals like nickel and cobalt, while at the same time proposing to place a major potential source of domestic metals off limits. 

But groups advocating for the mineral withdrawal point out that it’s an established tool that many administrations have used to protect special places from the risks of mining, and doesn’t require that the government analyze specific mine plans.

Becky Rom, national chair of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, pointed out that even the Trump administration approved several mineral withdrawals. 

“This is the way the law was set up,” Rom said. “It’s a very strong scientific approach to everything we know about the (Boundary Waters), and what mining would pose in terms of risk to this place.”

If the withdrawal moves forward, it would take away the possibility of developing a large part of what is known as the Duluth Complex, what the environmental study calls “a world-class deposit, and one of the largest undeveloped copper-nickel and platinum-group metal deposits in the world.”

The Forest Service estimates that about 30 percent of the area that would be covered by the mining moratorium has a “high potential” for mining.

Groups fighting copper-nickel mines in the region hope the withdrawal is only a first step. U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum has introduced legislation that would permanently ban this kind of mining within the watershed of the Boundary Waters.

 “This pristine, precious wilderness demands permanent protection,” McCollum said. “The EA’s scientific foundation leaves no doubt: it is simply too risky to mine in this location.”