Federal Agencies Stop Twin Metals Mining Plans Near BWCA – Public Pressure Led To Decision

Boundary Waters Canoe Area

Environmentalists are hailing a decision from the Obama administration to deny Twin Metals Minnesota’s application for renewal of two sulfide ore mining leases that are located near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA).

The decision comes after thousands of public comments expressing concern about potential damage to the environment from the mining or potential runoff. Hundreds of people showed up to public meetings in Duluth and Ely to express their concerns.

The two leases, initially issued in 1966 and most recently renewed in 2004, would have allowed for the mining of copper, nickel and associated minerals from the leased lands. However, no mineral production has occurred on either lease since the original date of issuance.

The Department of Interior also announced it has received an application from the U.S. Forest Service to withdraw federal mineral rights in the Boundary Waters watershed. This starts a public review process to analyze withdrawing federal mineral rights for a twenty-year period. A public input period on this permanent protection for the Boundary Waters will begin once notice is published in the Federal Register and will last ninety days. This review also creates a two-year “time out” when no new federal mineral leases can be issued.

Environmentalists, Governor Applaud Decision

“These actions happened because tens of thousands of people spoke up against locating a sulfide mine on the edge of America’s most popular wilderness area,” stated Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness Executive Director Paul Danicic. “We thank the U.S. Forest Service for listening to their concerns and making a decision that protects the Boundary Waters from Twin Metals’ dangerous proposal. Now it’s critical that everybody who cares for the Boundary Waters join us and show the federal government how many people support permanently protecting the Boundary Waters from sulfide mining pollution.“

“The Boundary Waters is a special place for Minnesotans who love hunting, fishing and recreation and who depend on thousands of jobs sustained by America’s most-popular wilderness,” said Becky Rom, National Chair of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters. “Science has clearly shown that copper mining would inflict devastating harm on this priceless wilderness. Today’s decision reflects strong support from a majority of Minnesotans who want to prioritize the wide-ranging value our communities gain from a healthy Boundary Waters, rather than open an industrial mining zone less than a mile from the wilderness edge.”

Rom added: “It’s a strong first step, but there is still a lot of work to do to ensure we can protect the BWCA for future generations. Our coalition keeps growing as sportsmen, veterans, businesses and other interests sign on to support our efforts.”

Earlier this year, Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton directed the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources not to authorize or enter into any new state access agreements or lease agreements for mining operations in close proximity to the BWCAW.

“Today’s announcement is tremendous news for the protection of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BCWAW), a crown jewel in Minnesota, and a national treasure,” said Dayton in a statement.

“It is important to note that this decision is not in opposition to mining, but in defense of a pristine and priceless environmental wonder. We must continue doing all we can to support good jobs and a strong economy in Northeastern Minnesota, while ensuring the protection of our greatest natural resources. I thank Secretary Vilsack and Secretary Jewell for their exceptional leadership, to protect the BWCAW for all Minnesotans and for our country.”

Former Vice President Walter Mondale said in a statement “Our nation’s wilderness is our heritage–and today marks another victory in the ongoing fight to preserve that heritage for our children and our children’s children. The decisions by the US Forest Service and Interior Department are testaments to the potential of our government to do good by the people, for the people. They listened to the public. They followed the science. And they reached the right conclusion. They will be thanked for generations to come.”

Press release from the Interior and Agriculture departments announcing today’s decision.

The U.S. Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture today announced important steps to protect the watershed of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW), a spectacular area in northeastern Minnesota comprised of more than a million acres of lakes and forests.

Citing broad concerns from thousands of public comments and input about potential impacts of mining on the wilderness area’s watershed, fish and wildlife, and the nearly $45 million recreation economy, the agencies today took actions that denied an application for renewal of two hard rock mineral leases in the area, as well as initiated steps to withdraw key portions of the watershed from new mineral permits and leases.

“The Boundary Waters is a natural treasure, special to the 150,000 who canoe, fish, and recreate there each year, and is the economic life blood to local business that depend on a pristine natural resource,” said Secretary Vilsack. “I have asked Interior to take a time out, conduct a careful environmental analysis and engage the public on whether future mining should be authorized on any federal land next door to the Boundary Waters.”

It was in recognition of its irreplaceable resources that Congress set aside the Boundary Waters more than 50 years ago. Today, more than 150,000 annual visitors help drive the local economy through tourism and outdoor recreation.

“There’s a reason that the Boundary Waters is one of the most visited wilderness areas in America: it’s an incredible place,” said U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell. “Today’s best available science is helping us understand the value of the land and water and potential impacts of development in places like the Boundary Waters. This is the right action to take to avoid irrevocably damaging this watershed and its recreation-based economy, while also taking the time and space to review whether to further protect the area from all new mining.”

As the surface management agency, the Agriculture Department’s U.S. Forest Service has issued a decision withholding consent to the renewal of two mineral leases located on lands near the wilderness area within the Superior National Forest in northern Minnesota. As a result of that decision, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the agency managing the mineral deposits, is subsequently rejecting the renewal application, which was submitted by Twin Metals Minnesota in 2012.

The two leases, initially issued in 1966 and most recently renewed in 2004, would have allowed for the mining of copper, nickel and associated minerals from the leased lands. However, no mineral production has occurred on either lease since the original date of issuance.

In not consenting to the lease renewals, the Forest Service cited the potential risk of environmental contamination of the surrounding watershed as a key concern. The two leases are located directly adjacent to and within three miles of the BWCAW, respectively. It is well established that acid mine drainage is a significant environmental risk at sulfide ore mine sites like the one proposed for these leased lands and in a water-based ecosystem like the Boundary Waters because contaminated water could have dramatic impacts to aquatic life, sport fisheries, and recreation-based uses and communities.

The BWCAW is the only large lake-land wilderness in the National Wilderness Preservation System. In establishing the wilderness area, Congress directed the Forest Service to maintain its water quality, protect its fish and wildlife, and minimize the environmental impacts associated with mineral development.

This past summer, the Forest Service held two listening sessions and a 30-day public input period related to the potential lease renewals and received more than 30,000 comments. The decision to withhold consent and study the impacts of this type of mining near the Boundary Waters echoes the concerns of many in the area, including former Vice President Walter Mondale and Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton, who has similarly said that the state will not authorize or enter into any new state access or lease agreements for mining operations near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.

The Forest Service also submitted an application to the Secretary of the Interior to withdraw key portions of the watershed that flows into the BWCAW from new mineral permits and leases.

The BLM will review the withdrawal application and issue a notice in the Federal Register to segregate the lands – essentially, place them in a ‘time out’ – for up to two years, subject to valid existing rights. To preserve the status quo during that ‘time out,’ no new mineral exploration or development applications would be accepted while a thorough, scientific environmental analysis is conducted. Upon publication of the Federal Register notice, there will be an initial 90-day public review period for the proposed withdrawal and additional analysis during the segregation period that will include further public involvement, including public meetings.

During the segregation period, BLM and the Forest Service will conduct an environmental analysis to determine if the lands should be withdrawn for a period of 20 years. This process will invite participation by the public, tribes, environmental groups, industry, state and local government, as well as other stakeholders. By law, the Department of the Interior can only withdraw these lands for a maximum of 20 years. Only Congress can legislate a permanent withdrawal.

The segregation or any future withdrawal would not prohibit ongoing or future mining activities on any valid existing rights or prohibit any other authorized uses on private lands.

Other National Forest management activities that are not related to mineral exploration or development, including permits, licenses, and cooperative agreements compatible with the intended use on the lands, would still be permissible at the discretion of the authorized officer.

Michael McIntee

Michael McIntee is a former network TV news executive with more than 30 years of broadcasting experience. He began his broadcasting career at the University of Minnesota's student radio station. He is an expert producer, writer, video editor who has a fondness for new technology but denies that he is a geek. More about Michael McIntee »

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