Twin Metals’ efforts to build a $2.8 billion copper mine near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) in Minnesota was dealt an significant blow when the U.S. Forest Service said that it is “deeply concerned” about a proposed copper mine and that it may deny the mineral leases that are critical for the project to proceed.
The U.S Forest Service also took the highly unusual step of asking for public comment on the project and announced a public hearing in Duluth on July 13, The Star Tribune reported.
Gov. Mark Dayton, who earlier this year expressed “grave concerns” for the wilderness area he described as Minnesota’s crown jewel, quickly commended the Forest Service and supported its view of the risks.
“I share the view expressed today by the Forest Service,” he said in a statement.
Twin Metals said in a recent report that it plans to start seeking regulatory approval in 2018 for an underground mine that would take about three years to build and eventually employ 850 people.
It is the second copper-nickel project wending its way through the regulatory process in northeast Minnesota. The first, PolyMet Mining’s Corp.’s NorthMet project, this year completed a 10-year environmental review and is expected in the coming months to ask for a permit to mine. That mine would drain toward the St. Louis River and Lake Superior, and it also has triggered a long and vocal statewide debate over environmental protection vs. economic development in a part of the state prized for its natural beauty.
“Potential impacts to water resources include changes in water quantity and quality, contamination from acid mine drainage, and seepage of tailings water, tailings basin failures and waste rock treatment locations,” the Forest Service said.
Environmental groups praised the move but U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Minn., said he found the Forest Service's statement “disturbing,” and urged the agency to extend the leases immediately.
“Now is not the time to pre-emptively block new mining opportunities on the Range, or the environmental review process itself,” he said.
“Moreover, it seems apparent from the Forest Service’s announcement today that they have all but decided to disapprove the leases even before the 30-day waiting period for public input and a listening session commences.”
The affected leases are under the control of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, but that agency recently asked the Forest Service to give its opinion, asking in effect whether the leases were in the best interest of the Superior National Forest. The Forest Service controls management of the surface land and is responsible for protecting and preserving it, as well as managing the natural resources it can provide.
The leases, which Twin Metals acquired from other mining companies that explored the area, have been in place since the mid-1960s, long before federal environmental review laws took effect. The BLM recently declined to automatically renew them, and earlier this month asked the Forest Service to weigh in.
The public can mail comments from June 20 to July 20 to Superior National Forest, 8901 Grand Av. Place, Duluth, MN 55808, or e-mail TwinMetalsLeaseInput@fs.fed.us. The public meeting will be held July 13 at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center and will be streamed live on the internet.