Evidence has been piling up about the long-lasting risk that copper-nickel sulfide mining poses to Minnesota’s precious water and wild places. In 2014, Mount Polley’s “state of the art” sulfide mine in British Columbia burst a dam and spilled billions of gallons of polluted water into pristine lakes and rivers (https://www.earthworksaction.org/earthblog/detail/second_year_anniversary_of_mount_polley#.WGVWZbYrLSw). In 2015, the Gold King mine in Colorado, despite being closed for ninety years, spilled millions of gallons of lurid orange polluted water hundreds downstream (http://www.hcn.org/issues/48.7/silvertons-gold-king-reckoning). In 2016, hydrologist Dr. Tom Myers published a study in the peer-reviewed Journal of Hydrology (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022169415009683) that showed that polluted water from a mine near the Boundary Waters would quickly spread into the wilderness.
After years of pressure and with the support of Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton and former Vice President Walter Mondale, the federal government made two significant decisions in December that protect the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Both of them involve mineral rights owned by the federal government in the area near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. A company needs to control the mineral rights for the area they want to mine, and without mineral rights no mine can be built.
First, the U.S. Forest Service refused to consent to extending two fifty year-old federal mineral leases held by Twin Metals Minnesota, effectively terminating these leases. The mineral rights included are at the center of Twin Metals’ proposed mine. Without them, the proposed mine is likely dead. Second, the Department of Interior announced they had received a request from the Forest Service to withdraw all federal mineral rights in the Boundary Waters watershed. This would prevent any company from leasing any of the over 200,000 acres of in the Rainy River/Boundary Waters drainage basin. The process calls for a “pause” of up to two years, during which the government will analyze whether to stop issuing federal mineral leases in the area for twenty years. Neither of these actions would directly affect PolyMet’s proposed mine, which leases privately owned mineral rights and is in the Lake Superior drainage basin.
Both of these actions are victories for the BWCAW and the people who have working to protect it. However, these actions have been called into question by the impending presidency of Donald Trump. The incoming Secretary of the Interior, Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke, has been vocal in his support of mining and logging on federal lands. Backers of Twin Metals have argued that Trump’s incoming administration can reverse these decisions. Can President-elect Trump roll back these decisions?
In the case of the denial of Twin Metals’ mineral leases, the answer is probably no. Leasing decisions by one presidential administration are not necessarily subject to reversal by the next. However, there a pending court case filed by Twin Metals argues that the federal government does not have the ability to deny the extension of these leases. That means the courts will likely decide the fate of the Twin Metals leases. The first hearing in that case is scheduled for late April 2017.
But the petition to withdraw federal minerals in areas that water would flow into the Boundary Waters Wilderness face a murkier picture. A review period will kick off in January, including a ninety-day public input period with public hearings and the ability to submit written comments to the federal government. However, it will be the Trump administration’s Bureau of Land Management that will make the decision on whether to withdraw federal minerals near the BWCA from leasing. Given what is known about the Trump administration’s position on mining and oil and gas drilling, it will require a huge outpouring of support to win a twenty-year withdrawal.
Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton recently characterized the Twin Metals mine proposal as “stymied” but not dead. He’s correct – permanently protecting the Boundary Waters from the threat posed by sulfide mining requires further action by the federal and state government. Unless we can secure permanent protection for the Boundary Waters, Twin Metals’ mine proposal could come back like a zombie. That’s where you come in. Here’s what you can do:
First, tell Senators Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken that you support the decision to terminate Twin Metals’ mineral leases. Senator Klobuchar in particular (http://www.klobuchar.senate.gov/public/events-speeches-and-floor-statements?ID=61B3774D-3BDA-4418-AD46-CE8013D42A17) has been critical of the decision. The scientific evidence of a threat to the Boundary Waters has been clear and continues to grow. Pick up the phone and call their offices (Sen. Franken – https://www.franken.senate.gov/?p=offices) (Sen. Klobuchar – http://www.klobuchar.senate.gov/public/offices) to let them know that you support decisions by the federal government that protect the BWCA from sulfide mining pollution.
Second, get ready to participate actively in the upcoming public input period. We will need all hands on deck to make it clear to the incoming administration that action is needed to protect the BWCAW and that support for the BWCAW transcends partisan politics.
These actions are the result of years of hard work and your voices. Over 70,000 people joined together (http://www.friends-bwca.org/2016/12/federal-government-vetoes-twin-metals-leases-moves-to-permanently-protect-bwca/) to tell the Forest Service to deny Twin Metals’ leases, and they listened. Now we need even more people to tell the incoming federal government that it’s time to permanently protect the Boundary Waters from the threat of sulfide mining.