|Written by Mordecai Specktor,
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In its year-end review of the Top 10 stories of 2016, the Mesabi Daily News (virginiamn.com) nominated for its No. 2 selection the “War on Twin Metals.” The newspaper sketched out its year-long coverage of the simmering controversy over a massive underground copper-nickel mine near Ely. The issue came to a climax in December, when the Department of the Interior announced that it would deny Twin Metals Minnesota’s application to extend mineral leases, which were first issued in 1966.
The group Mining Truth (miningtruth.org), a consortium of Minnesota environmental groups and supporters (including Protect Our Manoomin), noted that the “immediate impact of the decision [to deny extension of the mineral leases] is that Twin Metals no longer holds the mineral rights to a wide swath of their proposed underground copper-nickel sulfide mine. In addition to the decision on the leases, the Department of Interior also announced it was commencing a review of all federal mineral rights in the Boundary Waters watershed. This will mean a 90 day public input period and an up to two year ‘time out’ where no federal mineral leases will be issued.”
Mining Truth added, that the U.S. Forest Service “also submitted an application to the Secretary of the Interior to withdraw key portions of the watershed that flows into the BWCAW [Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness] from new mineral permits and leases.”
Northeastern Minnesota has seen a mining rush in recent years, as corporations angle to begin copper-nickel operations. The area has been the site of iron ore and taconite mining for decades, but sulfide mining is something new to the state; and the Ojibwe bands and environmentalists fear that mine waste run-off will pollute streams, rivers and groundwater – and that sulfate pollution will decimate wild rice beds in areas ceded in federal treaties. In the 19th century land cession treatie, the Ojibwe bands gave up vast tracts of ancestral territory, and reserved their rights to hunt, fish and gather in these areas in perpetuity. These subsistence rights will be of little value if the land and water are poisoned by toxic mine waste, as has happened with hard rock mining operations all across the American West.
As expected, Twin Metals, which is owned by the Chilean mining giant Antofagasta, decried the federal decision not to extend its mineral leases. On Dec. 15, the company said it was “greatly disappointed” by the decision of the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S.Forest Service “to deny renewal of two of the company’s long-standing and valid mineral leases in Minnesota, and to initiate actions to withdraw federal lands and minerals from future exploration and development. If allowed to stand, the BLM-USFS actions will have a devastating impact on the future economy of the Iron Range and all of Northeast Minnesota, eliminating the promise of thousands of good-paying jobs and billions of dollars in investment in the region. Further, this unprecedented decision is contrary to the overwhelming majority of local and regional citizens and communities who support mining and believe mining can be done responsibly in this region.”
The Twin Metals statement noted that it has already invested $400 million in the mine project. The company’s website declares that Minnesota “has the potential to be a global epicenter for strategic metals mining. There are more than 4 billion tons of copper, nickel, platinum, palladium, gold and other metal resources contained in northern Minnesota’s Duluth Complex, the largest known undeveloped deposit of strategic metals in the world.”
While the feds have dealt a blow to Twin Metals’ mining scheme, PolyMet Mining, a Canadian firm, is still on track to develop a copper-nickel mine near Hoyt Lakes. The feds expressed concern that the Twin Metals project could pollute the pristine Boundary Waters wilderness; but PolyMet’s NorthMet project poses the same threat to rivers and streams flowing into Lake Superior. Actually, hydrologists working with the Ojibwe bands have contended that the water flow models used in the NorthMet environmental review were flawed – mine wastewater could flow south toward Lake Superior or north into the Boundary Waters. In any case, Minnesota approved the final environmental impact statement for the NorthMet project last March, after reports and hearings that stretched back 10 years. The company still has to win approval for a numerous permits before it can start digging Up North.
Regarding the previously mentioned “war on Twin Metals,” the Mesabi Daily News predicted: “This issue isn’t going away quietly in 2017, as it sets up for a big fight between the environmental left and the incoming Donald Trump administration on the right.”