The US Forest Service has released a long-awaited environmental study A proposed 20-year moratorium on copper mining on federal land near Boundary Waters Canoe. It’s the latest move in an effort by the Biden administration to put a long-term moratorium on proposed copper and 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 sent to the US Bureau of Land Management and eventually to Home Secretary Deb Haaland. It will make the final decision to place about 350 square miles of northern Minnesota outside the boundaries of the new copper and nickel mines.
“Knowing that we are one step closer to a 20-year suspension of toxic mining on federal lands surrounding Boundary Waters is cause for celebration and belief that science, law, and the popular will can prevail,” said Chris Knopf, Executive Director of Boundary Waters. Wild water frontier friendsone of several battling groups proposed copper and nickel mines in northern Minnesota.
The 20-year “mineral pull,” as it’s officially known, was first proposed in the final days of the Obama administration. But the proposed moratorium was scrapped under the Trump administration, and the incomplete environmental study was never launched, despite calls from congressional and state leaders.
Then, in October, the Biden administration again proposed a 20-year ban on new copper mining in the area, arguing that it was necessary to protect Boundary Waters “from the harmful environmental impacts” of mining.
Mining has already been banned within the million-acre Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness, in a buffer strip around the wilderness border, and along the three main entry corridors into the wilderness.
This withdrawal will cover approximately 250,000 acres of Super National Forest land located outside of those areas, but within the BWCA watershed. The proposed mine-fighting groups targeted the federal land area south of the water boundary because any water pollution emanating from new mines could flow into the wild.
Since proposing a mining moratorium, the Biden administration has also canceled two federal mineral leases in the area held by Twin Metals Minnesota, which is seeking to build an underground copper, nickel and precious metal mine near Ely, south of Boundary Waters.
Twin Metals said it plans to fight lease cancellation. If these leases are not returned to the company, and mineral withdrawals are approved, no new mining will be permitted at the site, on the shore of Birch Lake, for 20 years.
Metal withdrawal will not affect PolyMet Mining, the other proposed copper-nickel project to date in northern Minnesota, because it is located outside the Boundary Waters watershed. State regulators have approved this proposal on the far northeastern end of the Iron Chain, but it remains restricted in judicial and regulatory action.
This new environmental study assesses the risks of developing new copper and nickel mining in the area, and includes reports on a number of potential environmental and social impacts, including on the area’s social economy, water and cultural resources, flora and wildlife, dark skies, and landscape sound. And at the borders of wild waters.
The report supports in more detail the position taken by the Forest Service when it first proposed a mining ban, and that copper and nickel mining — which carries with it the risk of acid mine drainage and other severe water pollution — is incompatible in the watersheds of a unique region. and fragile water-based wilderness such as border waters.
As part of its review, the agency looked at 20 other copper and nickel mines across the United States and Canada and found that all had some level of environmental impacts, and that environmental reviews of the projects greatly underestimated those impacts.
The report concludes, “The current literature indicates that mining of hard minerals of sulfide-bearing rocks, regardless of how it is conducted, poses a risk of environmental contamination due to the potential failure over time of the engineering mitigation technique.”
Industry groups have long criticized the withdrawal and environmental assessment, arguing that the only way to assess the environmental risks of mining in the area is to conduct an in-depth environmental impact statement for a specific proposed mine.
“Quite frankly, a new Costco entering a suburb could require more environmental review than EA,” said Frank Ungaro, CEO of MiningMinnesota. “EA has very little science, and does nothing but make too many assumptions in a scenario.”
Ungaro accused the Biden administration of speaking frankly at both ends of its mouth, defending the domestic supply chain of critical minerals such as nickel and cobalt, while at the same time proposing to position a major potential source of domestic minerals beyond borders.
But groups advocating mineral withdrawals point out that it is a well-established tool that many administrations have used to protect private places from mining dangers, and does not require the government to analyze specific mine plans.
Becky Rohm, national president of the Campaign to Save the Water Frontier, noted that even the Trump administration has approved several mineral recalls.
“That’s how the law was set up,” Rohm said. “It’s a very strong scientific approach to everything we know about (Boundary Waters), and what mining could pose in terms of the risks to this place.”
If the withdrawal moves forward, it would rule out the possibility of developing a large part of what is known as the Duluth complex, which the environmental study calls “a world-class deposit, and one of the largest undeveloped nickel-copper-platinum-group metal deposits in the world”.
The Forest Service estimates that about 30 percent of the area that the mining moratorium will cover has “high potential” for mining.
Groups battling the region’s copper and nickel mines hope the pullout is just a first step. US Representative Betty McCollum introduced legislation permanently banning this type of mining within the watersheds of border waters.
“This precious pristine wilderness requires constant protection,” McCollum said. “EA’s scientific basis leaves no room for doubt: it’s simply too risky for me to be on this site.”