Political Matters – January 2020


By Mordecai Specktor

Here comes Twin Metals

In December, Twin Metals submitted its mine plan of operations to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, and an environmental worksheet to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR). This kicks off what likely will be a years-long environmental review process for a second copper-nickel mine in the state, this one located southeast of Ely, Minnesota.

Twin Metals Minnesota (TMM) is a subsidiary of Antofagasta, a global mining giant based in Chile. The company’s proposed underground mine – originally planned to be dug underneath Birch Lake – would process 20,000 tons of ore per day. It would be a mammoth operation, rearranging the landscape Up North.

The mine’s location near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA), an area under administration of the U.S. Forest Service, has triggered vociferous pushback by environmental groups. Ojibwe bands in Minnesota also are concerned about the potential harm from hard-rock mining – a new animal in Minnesota, which has had a long history of iron and taconite mining. Wastewater from sulfide mining could contaminate lakes, rivers and groundwater. The Ojibwe bands – which retain rights to hunt, fish and gather over a vast area of northern Minnesota under 19th century land cession treaties with the U.S. government – are especially concerned that stands of wild rice could be destroyed by sulfide pollution.

I’ve been writing for the past dozen years about another potentially catastrophic sulfide mining project, the PolyMet mine, which has received approval from the DNR and federal agencies. This past fall, the Fond du Lac band of Lake Superior Chippewa sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over two PolyMet permits. The Star Tribune reported that the lawsuit filed in Minnesota’s U.S.

District Court concerns “a disputed water-quality permit issued by state pollution regulators and a permit to dredge and fill wetlands, issued by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers.”

A second lawsuit filed by four environmental groups targets the Army Corp’s permit on the wetlands piece. “The PolyMet mine would result in the single largest permitted destruction of wetlands in the history of Minnesota,” said Chris Knopf, executive director of Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness.

The PolyMet project, which could despoil waterways feeding into Lake Superior, is on hold pending the outcome of these lawsuits; attention has shifted to the proposed TMM mine and its proximity to the Boundary Waters. The Obama administration, in 2016, canceled mineral leases owned by Twin Metals, citing the environmental threat to the pristine wilderness area; then the Trump administration renewed the leases and cancelled a U.S. Forest Service study of mining in the Superior National Forest.

In a shift of political winds, Minnesota elected officials, including U.S. Senators Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith, have supported the Forest Service study, which could have led to a 20-year moratorium on mining projects. Trump’s decision to renew the Twin Metals mineral leases is also being contested in a D.C. federal court.

And in a congressional budget deal struck in late December, funding for the mining study was removed from the $1.4 trillion federal budget bill at the insistence of the White House. However, a provision introduced by Minnesota DFL Congresswoman Betty McCollum, which requires a U.S. State Department report on the TMM project’s impact on the neighboring Canadian wilderness area, the Quetico Provincial Park, made it into the budget proposal.

McCollum’s measure gives the State Department 60 days to “report to Congress on the effects of sulfide-ore copper mining in the Superior National Forest on international waters shared with Canada and protected by the 1909 Boundary Waters treaty,” according to the Star Tribune.

“The White House also demanded the removal of the State Department study from the final budget bill,” McCollum’s chief of staff Bill Harper told the Star Tribune. “But when the massive document was printed, he said, the provision was still in there. His best guess is it was some kind of oversight. Trump signed the bill anyway, providing McCollum a budget victory.”

Minnesota’s Republican congressmen, notably Pete Stauber and Tom Emmer, support the Twin Metals project, as do some DFL legislators, along with trade unions that talk up the jobs that will come with mining. Many of those involved in the tourism economy in the Arrowhead region have been opposed to the mining schemes.

I talked recently with Jeremy Drucker, spokesperson for the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, regarding environmental objections to the TMM scheme.

“What is being proposed, to put a copper-nickel mine right next to the Boundary Waters, is the height of folly,” he said. “It’s a risky proposition no matter what, and even Twin Metals, when asked, cannot guarantee that the Boundary Waters will be protected.”