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Feds take back mineral leases from Twin Metals

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service on Thursday rescinded federal mineral leases from Twin Metals Minnesota in a move that, if it stands, could kill the copper-nickel mine proposed near Ely.Officials of the agencies said th...

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In this photo from 2010, a worker holds a core sample showing a polymetallic deposit from the Twin Metals exploration area east of the Kawishiwi River in northern Lake County. (2010 file / News Tribune)
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The U.S. Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service on Thursday rescinded federal mineral leases from Twin Metals Minnesota in a move that, if it stands, could kill the copper-nickel mine proposed near Ely.
Officials of the agencies said the massive underground mine proposed along the Kawishiwi River is simply too close to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
The project is within the BWCAW watershed that flows north into Canada, and critics have said that any polluted runoff from rock high in sulfur could taint the 1.1 million acre, lake-studded wilderness.
“Not this mine, not in this place, not next to this wilderness,” Leslie Jones, deputy undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, told the News Tribune.
The Department of Agriculture oversees the Forest Service while the Interior Department oversees the BLM.
Supporters say the nearly $3 billion project would employ 850 people and pump millions of dollars into the regional economy hard hit by the cyclical nature of the iron ore industry.
The company responded Thursday that it will take legal action to overturn the agency decision, and mining supporters predicted that the incoming Trump administration will overturn the 11th hour move by the Obama administration.
“There’s a new administration coming to town and, hopefully, they will work to undo this silliness,” said Frank Ongaro, executive director of Mining Minnesota, the copper industry trade group.
It’s unlikely the project could proceed without the federal leases which the company called “the foundation of our project.” The company said Thursday it has already spent more than $400 million in exploration and advance work on the proposed mine and processing center.
But federal officials noted that copper mining is far different from iron ore mining and can’t be considered as benign to the environment because of the type of high-sulfur rock involved. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said keeping BWCAW water pristine is important not just for the 250,000 people who fish and canoe in the wilderness each year but for the tourism industry surrounding the area that pumps some $45 million into the local economy annually.
“The Boundary Waters is a national treasure,” Vilsack said in a statement announcing the mining permit decision.

Further exclusion
The agencies also are moving to exclude another 234,000 acres of the Superior National Forest south and west of the BWCAW from any future mining permits, most within the BWCAW watershed but outside the official wilderness, calling it a “timeout” to see if copper mining would be appropriate in any part of the area. Vilsack said the two agencies will conduct an environmental review “on whether future mining should be authorized on any federal land next door to the Boundary Waters.”
Federal officials promised an extensive scientific review and public comment period. The agencies could withdraw the land from any mining for up to 20 years - only Congress can permanently designate wilderness.
The two federal mineral leases at the heart of the Twin Metals project are southeast of Ely, around the Kawishiwi River and Birch Lake, north and south of Minnesota Highway 1. One is adjacent to the BWCAW border while the other is three miles away, federal officials noted.
“It is well established that acid mine drainage is a significant environmental risk at sulfide ore mine sites like the one proposed for these leased lands,” the government said in announcing its decision, saying any acid-tainted water leaving the mine project could have “dramatic impacts to aquatic life, sport fisheries and recreation based uses and communities.”

Will it last?
It’s not clear how the federal action in the last days of the Obama administration will hold up under a Trump administration. Federal officials reiterated that their decision on the Twin Metals leases is final but Twin Metals supporters said any administrative action can easily and quickly be overturned when new Interior and Agriculture secretaries take over in late January.

“This is by no means the end of it all,” said U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Crosby, a mining supporter. “We intend to work in the next Congress with the new Administration to ensure that we allow all mining initiatives to proceed through the proper rigorous and thorough process, using science, facts and technology to guide our decisions.” In September, Twin Metals filed suit in federal court seeking an order prohibiting the federal government from taking the leases back, but no action in that suit is scheduled until April at the earliest. The government just this week asked for the case to be dismissed because no decision had been made to be challenged.
However, now that a federal agency decision has been made, it appears some legal action is likely by the company.
Mining companies pay a small fee for exclusive rights to prospect on the federal lands and then would pay a royalty on any ore that's actually mined. The leases were first issued in 1966 to predecessor companies and have been purchased by Twin Metals as the company homes in on the most lucrative spot to dig. They were renewed most recently in 2004, but no actual mining has ever taken place. As mining appeared more likely, environmental groups asked the federal agencies to declare the area as inherently inappropriate for copper mining.
The leases are controlled by the BLM which earlier this year asked the Forest Service to recommend whether renewing the leases is good for the Superior National Forest where they are located.
Company officials said the decision goes against the long-term plan for the Superior National Forest which supports mining.
“Twin Metals is greatly disappointed in the action announced today by the BLM and the USFS to deny renewal of two of the company’s long-standing and valid mineral leases in Minnesota, and to initiate actions to withdraw federal lands and minerals from future exploration and development,” the company said in a statement Thursday. “If allowed to stand, the BLM-USFS actions will have a devastating impact on the future economy of the Iron Range and all of Northeast Minnesota, eliminating the promise of thousands of good-paying jobs and billions of dollars in investment in the region.”
The company said the “unprecedented decision” goes against local citizens who support the project.
Critics of the proposed mine noted that mineral leases held by Twin Metals were issued before most environmental regulations existed, including the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and the law that requires environmental impacts to be considered before decisions are made on where mines can be sited.
Becky Rom, national chairwoman of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, said the government's decision was correct.
“Science has clearly shown that sulfide-ore copper mining would inflict devastating harm on this priceless wilderness. Today’s decision reflects strong support from a majority of Minnesotans who want to prioritize the wide-ranging value our communities gain from a healthy Boundary Waters, rather than open an industrial mining zone less than a mile from the wilderness edge,” Rom said, adding that the Thursday action is a “strong first step, but there is still a lot of work to do to ensure we can protect the BWCA for future generations.”
The BWCAW is the most visited wilderness in the nation.
Twin Metals, a wholly owned subsidiary of Chilean mining giant Antofagasta, has been looking for copper in the area for years but is still in the preliminary stages of the proposed underground copper-nickel mine. The company has said it may be ready to submit the project for environmental review by 2018, and supporters say the project should be given a chance to succeed or fail based on that review.
In 2014, Twin Metals released the results of a “pre-feasibility” study on the mine saying the project has substantial mineral reserves, would have a low cost of production and could turn a solid profit. The report said the proposed mine would take about three years to build at a cost of $2.8 billion - by far the state's most expensive private construction project ever - and eventually would employ about 850 people mining about 50,000 tons per day, a far larger operation than the proposed PolyMet open-pit mine about 20 miles to the southwest.
Thursday’s decision is not expected to impact the PolyMet project.
The Twin Metals mine is predicted to produce valuable minerals for at least 30 years - including an estimated 5.8 billion pounds of copper and 1.2 billion pounds of nickel along with platinum, palladium, gold and silver.

Reaction to federal action rescinding Twin Metals mineral leases

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"There's a reason that the Boundary Waters is one of the most visited wilderness area in America: it's an incredible place. Today's best available science is helping us understand the value of the land and water and potential impacts of development in places like the Boundary Waters. This is the right action to take to avoid irrevocably damaging this watershed and its recreation-based economy, while also taking the time and space to review whether to further protect the area from all new mining."
U.S. Interior Sec. Sally Jewell

“Minnesota’s Iron Range got a real slap in the face and a punch in the gut by Washington bureaucrats this morning. The United States Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management announced their joint decision to withhold and deny consent on two of Twin Metals’ leases, which were previously renewed twice without controversy. This decision denies Minnesota’s Iron Range the opportunity to explore a project in the area that would bring thousands of new, greatly needed jobs to our region. The Washington bureaucrats have clearly overreached their authority. It’s an embarrassing shame that we can’t even use science and exploration to discover what we have before shutting it all down.”
U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, DFL-Crosby

“Today’s announcement is tremendous news for the protection of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, a crown jewel in Minnesota, and a national treasure. It is important to note that this decision is not in opposition to mining, but in defense of a pristine and priceless environmental wonder. We must continue doing all we can to support good jobs and a strong economy in Northeastern Minnesota, while ensuring the protection of our greatest natural resources. I thank Secretary Vilsack and Secretary Jewell for their exceptional leadership, to protect the BWCAW for all Minnesotans and for our country.”
Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton

“Coming in the final days of the Obama administration, this is not a shock. It’s a perfect example of why Democrats lost rural America. ... This is lost jobs and economic development. … It’s devastating for economic opportunity in the region. … it’s an example of why people don’t trust the federal government. It has nothing to do with science. It’s just political B.S.”
Frank Ongaro, executive director of Mining Minnesota

“These actions happened because tens of thousands of people spoke up against locating a sulfide mine on the edge of America’s most popular wilderness area. We thank the U.S. Forest Service for listening to their concerns and making a decision that protects the Boundary Waters from Twin Metals’ dangerous proposal. … By denying the extension of Twin Metals’ fifty year-old leases, the Department of Interior has taken a big step forward in protecting the Boundary Waters Wilderness. However, the need to permanently protect the Boundary Waters remains.”
Paul Danicic, executive director, Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness

“It is clear this is a decision driven by Democrats who are trying to kill all the mining projects they can while the lame-duck Obama administration is still in office. It is astounding that Democrats are blocking what would be one of the largest private construction projects in state history, while also depriving Iron Range workers of hundreds of good-paying jobs that would follow.”
Minnesota House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown

“Today’s decision to halt the current threat of dangerous, environmentally risky sulfide-ore copper mining is a major victory for our state and our environment. Working with Governor Dayton and a grassroots coalition of Minnesotans and Americans, we have fought to conserve the million acres and thousand lakes that form these national treasures. I am delighted that Secretaries Tom Vilsack and Sally Jewell have acted to save our Boundary Waters. While all Minnesotans should celebrate today’s victory, we have more work to do. I will keep advocating for the full withdrawal of these federal lands from mining, including fighting for legislation in Congress that will protect our Boundary Waters forever.”
U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn.

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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