The US Forest Service has released a long-awaited environmental study of a proposed 20-year moratorium on copper mining on federal lands near the Boundary Waters boating zone. It’s the latest step in a bid by the Biden administration to put copper-nickel mining projects in a wide swath of northeastern Minnesota on hold for the long term.
Members of the public now have 30 days to comment on the environmental assessment, which will then be forwarded to the US Office of Land Management and ultimately to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland. It will make the final decision to place approximately 350 square miles of northern Minnesota off-limits to new copper-nickel mines.
“Knowing that we are approaching a 20-year moratorium on toxic mining on federal lands surrounding boundary waters is reason both to celebrate and to believe that science, law and popular will can l ‘win,’ said Chris Knopf, executive director of Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, one of several groups fighting proposed copper-nickel mines in northern Minnesota.
The 20-year “mineral pullback,” as it is officially called, was first proposed in the final days of the Obama administration. But the proposed moratorium was rescinded under the Trump administration, and the unfinished environmental study was never released, despite pleas from congressional and state leaders.
Then, in October, the Biden administration again proposed banning all new copper mining in the region for 20 years, arguing it was necessary to protect the boundary waters “from the negative environmental impacts” of mining. mining.
Mining is already prohibited in the million acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, in a buffer strip around the wilderness boundary and along the three main wilderness entry corridors.
This removal would cover approximately 250,000 acres of Upper National Forest land outside of these areas, but within the BWCA watershed. Groups fighting the proposed mines have targeted the area of federal lands south of boundary waters because any water pollution released by new mines there could run off into the wilderness.
Since proposing the mining moratorium, the Biden administration has also canceled two federal mining leases in the area owned by Twin Metals Minnesota, which is seeking to build an underground copper, nickel and precious metals mine near Ely. , just south of the boundary waters.
Twin Metals announced its intention to fight the cancellation of the lease. If these leases are not returned to the company and a mining levy is approved, no new mining at the site, on the shore of Lake Birch, will be permitted for 20 years.
Mining ore would not affect PolyMet Mining, the other copper-nickel project proposed so far in northern Minnesota, because it is located outside the Boundary Waters watershed. State regulators have approved this proposal in the far northeast of the Iron Range, but it remains tied to legal and regulatory proceedings.
This new environmental study assesses the risks of a new copper-nickel mining development in the area and includes reports on a number of potential environmental and social impacts, including socio-economics, water and cultural resources, flora and the area’s wildlife, dark skies, and soundscapes. , and on the desert of the boundary waters.
The report further supports the position taken by the Forest Service when it first proposed the mining ban, that copper-nickel mining – which carries a risk of mine drainage acid and other serious water pollution – is inconsistent in the catchment area of a unique and fragile water-based wilderness like Boundary Waters.
As part of its review, the agency looked at 20 other copper-nickel mines in the United States and Canada and found that all had some level of environmental impacts and that project environmental reviews frequently underestimated these impacts.
“Existing literature suggests that the extraction of hard rock minerals from sulphide rocks, however conducted, poses a risk of environmental contamination due to the potential failure over time of the mitigation technology,” the report concludes.
Industry groups have long criticized the withdrawal and environmental assessment, arguing that the only way to assess the environmental risks of mining in the region is to conduct a thorough environmental impact assessment of a specific proposed mine.
“Quite frankly, a new Costco moving into a suburb may need more environmental review than an environmental assessment,” said Frank Ongaro, executive director of MiningMinnesota. “The EA has very little science and just projects a lot of assumptions onto a scenario.”
Ongaro accused the Biden administration of speaking out of both sides of its mouth, for advocating for a national supply chain of critical minerals like nickel and cobalt, while at the same time proposing to ban a source major potential of national metals.
But groups advocating for the removal of minerals point out that it is an established tool that many administrations have used to protect special places from the risks of mining, and does not require the government to analyze specific mining plans.
Becky Rom, national chair of the Campaign to Save Boundary Waters, pointed out that even the Trump administration has approved several mineral withdrawals.
“That’s how the law was established,” Rom said. “It’s a very solid scientific approach to everything we know about the (boundary waters) and what mining would pose in terms of risk to this place.”
If the withdrawal goes ahead, it would remove the possibility of developing much of what is called the Duluth complex, which the environmental study calls “a world-class deposit and one of the largest undeveloped copper-nickel and platinum deposits”. group metal deposits in the world.
The Forest Service estimates that about 30 percent of the area that would be covered by the mining moratorium has “high potential” for mining.
Groups fighting against copper-nickel mining in the region hope the withdrawal is just a first step. US Representative Betty McCollum has introduced legislation that would permanently ban this type of mining in the Boundary Waters watershed.
“This pristine and precious wilderness demands permanent protection,” said McCollum. “The scientific basis of EA leaves no doubt: it is simply too risky to mine there.”