Federal regulators will begin preparing an environmental review for the controversial Twin Metals copper-nickel mine within the same watershed as the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management on Tuesday filed a notice of intent indicating it will begin preparing an environmental impact statement, which weighs the potential environmental effects of the mine, and approving a mine plan of operation for Twin Metals, which allows the company to mine federal minerals once it has all other permits. Separately, the project is also under review by Minnesota regulators.
Twin Metals, owned by Chilean mining conglomerate Antofagasta, is hoping to build a large underground copper-nickel mine and dry-stacked tailings storage facility near Ely and Birch Lake, within the Rainy River Watershed and Superior National Forest and 5 miles from the BWCAW. The company submitted its mine proposal to both state and federal agencies in December.
In a news release Tuesday, William Perry Pendley, deputy director for policy and programs of the Bureau of Land Management, said the move was consistent with President Donald Trump's 2017 executive order that called on federal agencies to recommend ways of "streamlining leasing and permitting processes to expedite exploration, production, processing, reprocessing, recycling, and domestic refining of critical minerals."
“Under President Trump’s leadership and direction from the Secretary, this proposed mine may reduce the vulnerability to disruption of critical mineral supplies," Pendley said. "If the plan of operation is approved, you can rest assured knowing that development and production of critical minerals is done in an environmentally responsible, regulatory-consistent, and economically feasible manner.”
Fast-tracking the environmental review process is worrisome to opponents of Twin Metals, who argue toxic runoff from the mine and tailings facility will flow into and damage the BWCAW.
In a statement to the News Tribune, Chris Knopf, executive director of Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, said the bureau's decision was "another slap in the face of all people who care about clean water and public lands."
"This is nothing less than an announcement that the federal government is willing to do the bidding of a foreign-owned mining company,” Knopf said.
In a separate news release, the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters also expressed concern for the project being fast-tracked.
"Under direction from the Secretary of the Interior, the agency will conduct the most superficial of reviews — at breakneck speed and with arbitrary page limits," the group said in a news release. "Just a week ago, the state of Minnesota declared this same Twin Metals mine plan to be incomplete and some material representations to be false."
In a letter dated June 15, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, which is conducting its own environmental review of Twin Metals separate from federal agencies, in part because it had concerns over the Trump administration’s handling of the project, said Twin Metals' initial submittal was "incomplete" and listed almost 800 comments seeking clarifications and additional information from Twin Metals.
Unlike the DNR, the bureau determined Twin Metals' proposal to be "complete" in late May, the company said in a news release Tuesday.
DNR Assistant Commissioner Jess Richards told the News Tribune last week that determining the proposal to be incomplete and seeking additional information was a regular and expected part of the state agency's scoping process.
"The DNR’s letter to Twin Metals is a normal part of the (environmental impact statement) scoping process. Proposals for large projects are rarely, if ever, complete at the initial submittal stage and often subject to multiple iterations of review, comment and revision before we publish draft scoping documents for public review," Richards said.
In a release, Twin Metals chief regulatory officer Julie Padilla said the bureau's decision "is a standard but significant step in the process.”
“It signals that the federal government is moving ahead with its regulatory review, which we expect will take a number of years to complete and should include any relevant data from previous studies," Padilla said.
According to the bureau, it will hold several public scoping meetings and the public will be able to submit comments on the environmental review. Meeting dates have not been set.