U.S. Sen. Tina Smith has called on the Biden administration to restart an environmental study and process that could put a 20-year ban on copper-nickel mining near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
In a Friday letter to Department of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who have both publicly opposed mining near the BWCAW, Smith reiterated her support for the review and mineral withdrawal process that began under the Obama administration but was canceled by the Trump administration.
The mineral withdrawal proposal was ordered in final weeks of the Obama administration in 2016 and was intended to help federal officials decide if about 234,000 acres of the Superior National Forest outside the BWCAW should be exempt from all mining activity for 20 years.
At the same time, the federal government also did not renew key mineral leases to Twin Metals, effectively killing its planned underground mine in the Rainy River Watershed, which is shared with the BWCAW.
But Trump reversed both moves, ending the mineral withdrawal and reinstating Twin Metals' leases. It also left the two-year environmental study unfinished.
Smith said she wants the study finished to know whether copper-nickel mining can be done safely in the Rainy River Watershed.
"The evidence needed for such a determination would already be in hand if the Trump Administration had followed through on the previous two year review process that was abruptly cancelled in 2018," Smith wrote. "Given the prior efforts, I imagine that a new study could be completed in less than the two years allowed."
The study was ordered by the U.S. Forest Service, which Vilsack controlled in his first stint as agriculture secretary under Obama. When in congress, Haaland has co-sponsored a bill by U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, D-St. Paul, that would have permanently banned copper-nickel mining on federal Superior National Forest Land within the Rainy River Watershed.
Biden has signaled support for domestic mining of minerals used in electric cars but has not yet commented on Twin Metals or mining near the BWCAW.
The letter comes just as the interior and agriculture departments last week began a 90-day review of the Trump administration's renewal of Twin Metals' mineral leases.
Twin Metals, which is owned by Chilean mining giant Antofagasta, has proposed an underground mine, dry-stack tailings storage facility and processing plant along the shores of Birch Lake, which flows into the BWCAW via the Kawishiwi River. It claims it would not produce any acid rock drainage or release any water from processing.
In a news release, the company said any environmental review should specifically focus on the project itself. The study Smith wants restarted would instead take a broad view at what effect the industry could have on the watershed.
"The only way to accurately assess the potential impacts of a mining project and its surroundings is through this rigorous, law- and science-based regulatory review process. Imposing an additional and non-specific study when there is already a detailed, data informed proposal in place for Twin Metals undermines trust in science and our regulatory system and will have a chilling effect on investment in Minnesota’s rural economies," the company said.
But Smith's letter was cheered on by environmental groups that fear pollution, namely sulfides, would pollute the downstream BWCAW.
"Senator Tina Smith's support for protecting this priceless natural wonder and the thousands of jobs that depend upon it is tremendous news for not just Minnesotans, but for the thousands upon thousands of Americans who love this special place," Campaign to Save Boundary Waters Executive Director Tom Landwehr. "We believe this science-based environmental assessment will show decision-makers the Boundary Waters should be protected. This is a critical step on the path to permanent protection."
In her letter, Smith did not explicitly call for a moratorium on mining. She also acknowledged the minerals would have to come from somewhere and preferably not from countries with poor labor and environmental standards.
"It is irresponsible and unethical to outsource exploitative labor practices and environmental degradation to other places while we reap the benefits," Smith wrote. "However, copper-nickel mining is not right for all places. There are some places too sensitive to mine. This is why ... the mineral segregation and withdrawal study is so essential."