In a long-awaited decision issued Wednesday, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources found that current state rules governing where proposed copper-nickel mines can be built are not sufficient to protect the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness from noise and light pollution.
But the agency declined to issue a broader decision declaring the larger watershed that flows into the Boundary Waters off-limits to copper-nickel mining, as requested by the environmental organization that brought the challenge to DNR’s “nonferrous mine siting rule.”
The DNR did, however, acknowledge that certain aspects of copper-nickel mining may pose significant long-term risks and would be difficult to regulate in the Rainy River watershed.
The agency recommended that the state legislature consider whether mining activities such as the above ground storage of mine waste and reactive waste rock is compatible with the protection of the Boundary Waters.
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‘Extraordinary natural treasure’
“We concluded that Minnesota’s nonferrous mine siting rule is largely protective of the Boundary Waters … but should be reopened to better address the potential for mining-related noise and light impacts,” DNR commissioner Sarah Strommen said in a statement.
“We recognize that the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is an extraordinary natural treasure and deeply important to our identity as a state. We received many comments that raised questions about the State’s policy and risk tolerance around nonferrous mining. We believe these broader policy questions are more appropriately addressed by Minnesota’s Legislature.”
Existing state and federal law already bans mining within the Boundary Waters, a million-acre wilderness of lakes and rivers that attracts visitors from around the world to its 1,200 miles of canoe routes, featuring water so clean many paddlers drink water directly from the middle of deep lakes.
Mining is also not allowed along corridors such as the Gunflint Trail that provide access to the BWCA, and inside a narrow buffer zone that surrounds the wilderness boundary. But in many areas that buffer is only a quarter mile across.
To address the potential noise and light impacts of mining, the DNR also said it will begin a process to write new rules to expand that existing buffer, to provide a greater setback from the Boundary Waters for mining activities that would disturb the surface.
The decision from the DNR stems from a lawsuit filed in 2020 by Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness, the lead organization in the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, which has fought for several years to block the proposed Twin Metals underground copper-nickel mine outside Ely, on the edge of the Boundary Waters.
The suit argued that the Minnesota DNR’s 30-year old rule governing where nonferrous (non-iron ore) mines can be located, failed to protect the Boundary Waters from environmental damage, because it would allow potential mines to discharge pollution upstream from the wilderness.
“Our water quality standards were never designed for the Boundary Waters,” said Becky Rom, national chair of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters.
“No matter what, if you put a copper mine upstream, it will degrade the waters downstream, in no small part because the water quality standards established by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency for this type of activity allow significant pollution well beyond existing levels.”
The lawsuit was filed under the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act, which allows groups to challenge state rules or standards if they believe they fail to protect “the air, water, land or other natural resources located within the state from pollution, impairment, or destruction.”
This was the first-of-its-kind challenge to Minnesota’s nonferrous mining rules under the law, Rom said.
But in its 74-page decision, the DNR said that Minnesota already applies the most protective water quality standard available to the Boundary Waters, and that any proposed mine that would have a measurable impact on the waters of the BWCA would not be issued a permit.
The agency acknowledged that potential water pollution impacts from copper-nickel mine, such as acid mine drainage or the leaching of heavy metals, if they occur, “could potentially continue for decades or longer.”
“But again, DNR does not believe such impacts are likely due to the protective water quality standards for the BWCAW,” the agency wrote.
Ingrid Lyons, executive director of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, said the organizations is encouraged the DNR recognized that its existing rules are inadequate. But she said they’re still trying to understand the agency’s perspective on water quality.
“From an initial look, we do feel as though the Department of Natural Resources is a bit out of step with peer-reviewed scientific literature,” Lyons said. “There is an abundance of science out there that demonstrates unequivocally that this type of mining would cause really harmful water pollution to downstream water bodies.”
Mining backers support decision
Twin Metals said it’s reviewing the DNR’s order, but said the state’s nonferrous mining rules “establish some of the most rigorous standards in the world. They were developed over the course of three decades of comprehensive studies and public review.”
Jobs for Minnesotans, a labor and industry group supporting copper-nickel mining, said it supported the DNR’s decision to largely uphold its rules.
“It’s great to see that the DNR did not ban mining, and that they've taken the position that the existing rules are adequate to protect air and water quality standards in the BWCA,” said Chair Dave Chura.
Chura added that he hopes the DNR proceeds with its rulemaking “expeditiously,” and advances “the environmental review of any proposed nonferrous project submitted in a timely, predictable and transparent manner.”
Both Twin Metals and Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness have 30 days to challenge the DNR’s decision and ask for a contested case hearing.
DNR Deputy Commissioner Barb Naramore said the rulemaking process, which includes a public comment period, would take roughly 18 to 24 months to complete. She said that process would help determine how large any mining buffer zone would be.
New rules would potentially have an impact on the proposed Twin Metals underground copper-nickel mine outside Ely. But that project already suffered a major blow last year when the Biden administration canceled two federal mineral leases that were central to its mining plan.
The federal government also moved recently to ban new mining projects within the watershed of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area for 20 years.