Federal reversal on mining near BWCAW threatens Minnesota waters

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By Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

On Thursday, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced its cancellation of a Forest Service study and moratorium on mineral exploration in the watershed of the Superior National Forest, raising the possibility that private companies may soon be able to lease minerals in the watershed. The study was set up to research a proposed 20-year ban on mining within a 234,000 acre area of the Superior National Forest, which will now be dropped from consideration by the USDA.

 While the USDA did not name any particular company in its announcement, this reversal stands to benefit Twin Metals, which has proposed to construct a copper-nickel sulfide mine near Ely that would lie in the watershed of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The Department of Interior previously restored Twin Metals’ mineral leases, which had been revoked by the Obama Administration, moving the project closer to the realm of possibility.

If allowed to go ahead, the Twin Metals mine would pose an imminent and permanent threat to some of Northeastern Minnesota’s most precious water resources.

The study aimed to assess risks of new mining in NE Minnesota

The Forest Service’s study aimed to determine how sulfide mining – which has never before been done in the region – would impact the water, people, land, and wildlife in the region. The study and mineral moratorium were initiated under the Obama Administration, and was intended to last for at least two years. As late as May 2018, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue assured members of Congress that the study would be completed in full. Given that it instead lasted 15 months and included minimal public comment, it’s clear that this assurance was not kept.

The USDA’s claim that “The analysis did not reveal new scientific information” may be technically correct in the sense that the process was deliberately reduced in scope and capability to avoid the inconvenient facts: sulfide mining has never been conducted in a watershed without severe pollution, and it would devastate some of Minnesota’s most vulnerable waters.

An unprecedented, hazardous new industry

In its announcement, the USDA stated that “The Superior National Forest has been mined for decades and is known as the ‘Iron Range’ due to its numerous iron mines.” This misleadingly suggests that sulfide mining would be nothing new for Northeastern Minnesota. In fact, this type of mining has never happened in Minnesota, but it has happened in such places as Mount Polley in Canada, and the Berkeley Pit in Montana, both of which caused catastrophic water pollution. Along with the proposed PolyMet mine in the St. Louis River watershed, the Twin Metals mine (or any sulfide mine) near the Boundary Waters would threaten some of the most valuable and vulnerable freshwater supplies in the world. An inevitable spill would threaten the health of local residents, the viability of local ecosystems, and the vitality of Minnesota’s economy.

The USDA’s disregard for thorough scientific review and the value of Minnesota’s waters is a betrayal of Minnesotans’ trust. While the Twin Metals mine is far from being greenlit, the 20-year ban would have been a bulwark against sulfide mining pollution toxifying the Rainy River watershed and the Boundary Waters.

Minnesota can’t afford to allow sulfide mining to pollute our water for hundreds of years. The fight over Twin Metals is by no means over, and we urge all concerned Minnesotans to participate, so that the USDA’s error doesn’t turn into an environmental nightmare.

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