Minnesota regulators will review the state rules for copper-nickel mining within the same watershed as the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness after a judge on Wednesday upheld an agreement allowing for the review and dismissed a challenge by Twin Metals, which is proposing such a mine in that watershed.
Judge Laura Nelson in State District Court in St. Paul remanded the issues to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources so it could "institute appropriate administrative proceedings to consider and make findings and issue an order regarding the alleged inadequacy" and that Twin Metals' motion to dismiss "fails."
The order allows a November agreement between the DNR and environmental group Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness to proceed. In that, the state agency agreed to review its 1993 non-ferrous, or non-iron, mining rules to determine if it can actually protect the BWCAW from copper-nickel mining pollution in the Rainy River Watershed.
The move came after Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness filed a lawsuit in June State District Court under the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act arguing the state's rules were outdated and should be updated to ban copper-nickel mining in the Rainy River Watershed of Minnesota, which would effectively kill the proposed Twin Metals project.
Twin Metals has proposed 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.
In a news release Wednesday, Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, which includes Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness, celebrated the judge's order as a "win" and said it was "the first-ever lawsuit of its kind brought under Section 10 of the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act."
"With the ruling today Minnesotans will have the opportunity to demonstrate that the state's rules regulating where it is appropriate to conduct risky mining are not sufficient to protect the Boundary Waters and all that it provides our great state and nation," Tom Landwehr, executive director of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters and former DNR commissioner, said in the release.
In an emailed statement to the News Tribune, Twin Metals said it "is reviewing the decision to determine next steps."
"The rigorous state and federal environmental protection standards in place are designed to protect Minnesota’s environment and all of its watersheds," Twin Metals spokesperson Kathy Graul said. "We expect the regulatory review of the project to continue as this case proceeds.”
Asked what the next steps were for the DNR, Assistant Commissioner Jess Richards declined to comment as the agency had yet to review the ruling.
When the agreement was reached late last year, the DNR and Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness outlined a process that would include a public comment period and the ability for parties — including Twin Metals — to challenge the DNR's conclusion, which would trigger a contested-case hearing. And depending on the administrative law judge's conclusion, it could also force the agency to make rule changes.
However, the process "may no longer be operative" after Wednesday's order, said Jeremy Drucker, a spokesperson for the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters.
Parties to the case will schedule a conference call to discuss the next steps, according to Nelson's order.