The federal government will conduct an environmental review on a batch of Twin Metals' prospecting permits as it reconsiders its May 2020 decision to extend the permits to the copper-nickel mining company.

A federal judge on Monday approved a settlement between the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and environmental groups opposed to Twin Metals that requires the federal agency to conduct an environmental assessment under the National Environmental Protection Act, while revisiting its decision to grant 13 prospecting permits, which cover more than 15,000 acres of Superior National Forest land near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, to the company.

The action stems from a June lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness and The Wilderness Society challenging the May 2020 permit extension that gave the copper-nickel mining company the exclusive right to explore for minerals with drilling and other methods on that federal land through April 2024. The permits do not allow the company to mine there.

The Bureau of Land Management in November had already offered to conduct such a review after it determined the prospecting permits' last review, in 2012, did not consider the effects on endangered species.

Monday's settlement requires the agency to take public comment, make an "effects determination" on the permit's affect on the endangered northern long-eared bat and Canada lynx species and conduct an environmental review of the permits before it can decide whether or not to reissue them.

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The groups had wanted to include effects on gray wolves but those have since been removed from federal Endangered Species Act protections.

Twin Metals will not be allowed to conduct "surface disturbing activities" on the permit sites until the agency issues a new decision unless it is to remain in compliance with state and federal permit requirements, the settlement said.

The environmental groups this week celebrated the settlement and noted the Biden administration's separate, ongoing review of the Trump administration's renewal of Twin Metals' leases.

“After the horrendous years of the Trump administration, federal officials now appear focused on rational, science-based decision making,” Marc Fink, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in the release. “A thorough scientific analysis of these permits and Twin Metals’ related proposals will show that a massive copper-sulfide mine just upstream from the spectacular Boundary Waters wilderness is simply too great a risk. We’re confident this agreement will help lead to preserving this beloved place for future generations.”

Twin Metals submitted plans in December 2019 for an underground mine, processing plant and dry-stacked tailings storage facility on the edge of Birch Lake near Ely. Birch Lake flows into the Kawishiwi River, which then flows into the BWCAW. Opponents of Twin Metals fear toxic runoff from the mine would damage the downstream wilderness area.

The prospecting permits were all outside Twin Metals' existing mine plan submitted to regulators, causing opponents to fear Twin Metals could one day expand its planned mine. The company has said it has not determined mining potential for those sites.

In an emailed statement, Twin Metals spokesperson Kathy Graul reiterated the prospecting permits are separate from its mining proposal.

"As the Environmental Assessment on the prospecting permit sites continues to advance, Twin Metals will provide any necessary information to support this science and fact-based review process," Graul said.