Updated: 4:36 p.m.
The U.S. Department of the Interior issued a 20-year mining moratorium Thursday on 225,000 acres of federal land near the Boundary Waters, dealing a further blow to the proposed Twin Metals mine near Ely, Minn. and other potential mines for copper, nickel and precious metals within the watershed of the canoe wilderness area.
The decision is the latest milestone in a long and contentious tug of war over mining near the popular wilderness area that has spanned more than six years and three presidential administrations.
President Obama first proposed withdrawing federal land from future mineral exploration and leasing within the watershed of the Boundary Waters near the end of his second term in 2016. The Trump administration then stopped the environmental review of that proposal, before it was restarted under the Biden administration in 2021.
The decision announced Monday followed more than a year of analysis by the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service of the potential environmental and cultural impacts of mining in the region upstream from the Boundary Waters, and the review of 225,000 public comments.
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“Protecting a place like Boundary Waters is key to supporting the health of the watershed and its surrounding wildlife, upholding our Tribal trust and treaty responsibilities, and boosting the local recreation economy,” said Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland in announcing her decision.
“With an eye toward protecting this special place for future generations, I have made this decision using the best-available science and extensive public input.”
The decision limits the mining of a significant portion of the Duluth Complex, one of the largest undeveloped deposits of copper, nickel, cobalt and other platinum-group metals in the world.
Those metals are critical for the manufacturing of electric vehicle batteries, solar panels, wind turbines and other technologies crucial to the transition to a carbon-free economy.
Industry proponents argue that modern mining in Minnesota would be conducted with stronger environmental and human rights protections than in many other parts of the world. They further contend the projects would bring major economic benefits and high-paying jobs to the northeastern corner of the state.
Proponents further argue mining companies should be allowed to submit their specific mining plans to state and federal officials for review — they say that’s the only way to predict whether they can protect the environment.
“This action begs the question: why doesn’t the government have confidence in its own agencies’ ability to review proposed specific projects?” asked David Chura, chair of the business and labor group Jobs for Minnesotans.
Julie Lucas, executive director of the industry group Mining Minnesota, said the decision will make it more difficult to achieve President Biden’s climate goals. She said it will also limit the role the state can play in powering a transition to 100 percent carbon-free energy — something the state legislature is considering requiring by 2040.
“We should be prioritizing the safe and responsible development of these minerals, not putting them in a lockbox to ensure they can’t be used,” Lucas said.
An Interior Department official speaking on background said the Biden administration is committed to developing a strong domestic mineral supply chain, and supports responsible mining to develop those critical minerals.
“But we have to do so in a responsible manner,” the official said. “That includes balancing our commitment to ensure we protect some of our country's most spectacular outdoor places for future generations. The Boundary Waters and its surrounding watersheds are one of those places.”
While iron ore mining has a rich history in the state, mining for copper, nickel and precious metals has never been done before in Minnesota, and carries with it the risk for acid mine drainage and other severe water pollution.
Environmental groups have argued that risk is incompatible with the Boundary Waters — a fragile, million acre wilderness of interconnected lakes and rivers that hosts more than 150,000 visitors a year from around the world, and supports a thriving tourism and recreation-based economy.
As part of its analysis of the mineral withdrawal, the U.S. Forest Service looked at 20 other copper-nickel mines across the U.S. and Canada, and found all resulted in some level of environmental degradation, and that the environmental reviews of those projects frequently underestimated their eventual impacts.
“Our request for this withdrawal was based on concern for irreparable harm to this watershed,” said a Department of Agriculture official speaking on background.
“During the last decade or more numerous examples of environmental harm resulting from mining and sulfide mineral deposits have occurred. Although contamination containment strategies exist, the prospect of their failure as evidenced by harmful releases elsewhere, demonstrates the risk of irreparable harm to the Rainy River watershed, tribal treaty rights and the wilderness values in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area wilderness.”
Becky Rom, National Chair of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, called the withdrawal the most significant land conservation measure in Minnesota in 45 years, since Congress passed a law in 1978 that expanded the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and banned mining within it.
“Today Secretary Haaland completed the protection of the Boundary Waters adding to the mining ban area federal lands and minerals in the headwaters of the Boundary Wates, where all waters flow downstream into the Boundary Waters.”
That area within the Rainy River watershed covers a swath of about 350 square miles where any rain or snow that falls flows north and west into the Boundary Waters, Quetico Provincial Park, Voyageurs National Park and beyond.
“You don’t let the most polluting industry in America operate next to a pristine wilderness that contains an abundant supply of the cleanest water in the country,” said Chris Knopf, executive director of Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness.
“This is commonsense, and it’s supported by the rigorous findings of an exhaustive, two-year scientific study.”
Thursday’s decision places another roadblock in front of the proposed $1.7 billion dollar Twin Metals project, an underground copper-nickel mine near Ely, just south of the Boundary Waters and within the mineral withdrawal area.
Last year the Biden administration canceled two federal mineral leases held by Twin Metals along Birch Lake in the Superior National Forest. Those leases are required to mine the valuable metals underground.
The company has sued to have those leases reinstated. But even if it prevails, the mineral withdrawal puts additional federal leases that Twin Metals had hoped to obtain off limits.
“Twin Metals Minnesota is deeply disappointed and stunned,” Twin Metals spokesperson Kathy Graul said about the withdrawal, adding the company remains “committed to enforcing Twin Metals’ rights.”
The withdrawal does not have an impact the proposed PolyMet mine, which lies within the Lake Superior watershed, south of the withdrawal area.
That project has been approved by state regulators, but has been tied up in legal and regulatory proceedings for the past three years.
There have been about 90 mineral withdrawals enacted across the U.S. in the last roughly 50 years, said Save the Boundary Waters’ Rom.
Over the years both Democrats and Republicans have supported withdrawals, including the protection of about 30,000 acres in Montana known as Paradise Valley, in 2018 under the Trump administration, from potential mining federal lands north of Yellowstone National Park.
The withdrawal could be reversed by future administrations, or modified. That’s why DFL. Rep. Betty McCollum said she plans to reintroduce a bill to permanently ban mining within the watershed of the Boundary Waters.
But that proposal would likely not pass out of the House with its newly elected Republican majority.
“Today is an attack on our way of life,” said GOP Rep. Pete Stauber, who represents the area where the mineral withdrawal was imposed. “I can assure you that this Administration, from the President to the Forest Service, to the Interior Department, will answer for the pain they elected to cause my constituents.”
Bills have also been introduced in the Minnesota legislature to ban mining on state lands within the watershed of the Boundary Waters.