A two-year environmental impact investigation that will determine the future of copper-nickel mining decades in the Superior National Forest near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) Wilderness and Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota kicked off in March with about 1,000 people gathering at the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center to have their voices heard.
Twin Metals Minnesota has proposed developing a $2.8 billion underground mine and waste-storage facilities on the Kawishiwi River just outside the BWCA, but in December 2016, the federal Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service announced a two-year moratorium on mineral exploration on federal lands in the area. Opponents of mining in the area argue that mining could have a negative impact on the environment and affect jobs currently in the area. Some 200 outdoor businesses have formed a coalition to argue that northern Minnesota’s pristine lakes and forests are an economic engine that deserve protection. Altogether in Minnesota, outdoor recreation generates $11.6 billion in consumer spending and 116,000 jobs, according to data from the national Outdoor Industry Association.
Proponents of the mine say mining would bring much needed jobs to the area and that the ban is an over reach by the government. Last fall, Twin Metals sued the federal agencies, claiming they had no right to deny the company’s renewal of two mineral leases it’s held for decades on federal land.
If the government decides the risk of mining is too great, that would put the Boundary Waters and Voyageurs on a par with other iconic places across the country, such as the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone National Park and the Front Range in Montana, all of which have been granted similar protections, the Star-Tribune reported.
The two-year moratorium and the prospect of a two-decade ban have sparked a national landslide of legal and political action. The Forest Service has received more than 30,000 comments — so many that it agreed to extend the comment period from 90 to 120 days and add a second meeting on the Iron Range.
Labor and businesses interests, in the meantime, are lobbying the Trump administration to reverse the decision to conduct the mining review, arguing that thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in economic development are at stake.
Though the federal agencies had considered the decision to conduct the review for two years, it was finalized in the waning days of the Obama administration.
The federal review is likely to have a wider impact than just on federal lands. Gov. Mark Dayton has pledged to halt new mineral exploration on state-owned lands near the Boundary Waters and within the Rainy River watershed. Geologists say about two-thirds of the known precious-metal mineral deposits in Minnesota lie within that watershed, and more than half are controlled by the state and federal governments.
But outside the Rainy River watershed, other mining companies are moving ahead. PolyMet Mining Corp., which is one-third owned by the international conglomerate Glencore, is applying for permits to build an open-pit mine near Hoyt Lakes that would drain into the St. Louis River and Lake Superior. Kennecott mining continues to increase its exploration footprint around a copper deposit near Tamarack that would drain into the Mississippi and St. Croix rivers.