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Minnesota court upholds group's right to challenge mine-siting rules near Boundary Waters

The Minnesota Court of Appeals upheld a lower court's ruling.

Two paddlers make their way down the Kawishiwi River near Ely. The group American Rivers has again named the Kawishiwi one of the 10 most endangered rivers in the U.S. because of the potential of polluted mine waste from the proposed Twin Metals copper mine. Forum News Service file photo
Two paddlers make their way down the Kawishiwi River near Ely. The group American Rivers has again named the Kawishiwi one of the 10 most endangered rivers in the U.S. because of the potential of polluted mine waste from the proposed Twin Metals copper mine. Forum News Service file photo
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Opponents of Twin Metals Minnesota LLC's plans to mine copper, nickel and other minerals from a deposit on the outskirts of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness notched at least a modest win Monday, as the Minnesota Court of Appeals affirmed the public's right to seek further review of the state's current mine-siting rules.

Those rules ban nonferrous mining in both the Boundary Waters proper and in a buffer zone surrounding it. However, they do not preclude nonferrous mining in the area that Twin Metals aims to develop at Birch Lake near Ely.

A group called Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness challenged the adequacy of current re g u la tions , noting that while the site Twin Metals hopes to mine is located outside an established buffer zone, it sits within the Rainy River headwaters, which flow into the Boundary Waters.

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In a statement issued Monday, Becky Rom, national chair of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, hailed the ruling, saying: "The Boundary Waters is a national and state treasure. Today's strong legal decision by the Minnesota Court of Appeals clears the way for a much-needed examination by the state of whether the nation's most-toxic industry should be allowed in the same watershed as America's most-visited wilderness."
One of the group's chief concerns is the prospect of harmful sulfides from the copper-nickel deposit leaching into the water system and surrounding environment.

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But Twin Metals contends its mine would pose little risk to the environment. In a statement, the company said: "The underground Twin Metals mine will have minimal surface impact, and utilize dry stack tailings management, which is lauded by environmental groups and endorsed by more than 140 NGOs (non-governmental organizations) as the gold standard for tailings management in the mining industry."

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Nicole Hoffman, a geologist for Twin Metals, examines core samples in Ely in 2013. Contributed / Twin Metals

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources filed a procedural order in October with State District Court in Ramsey County, agreeing to a process to review whether its existing rules governing nonferrous mining should be allowed.

In a statement, state officials said: "This approach allows the DNR, as the state's primary regulatory authority for mining, to assess the adequacy of the siting rule through a robust administrative process that ensures agency experts have an opportunity to carefully consider all relevant evidence."

The DNR collected public comment on the matter from Nov. 9 through Dec. 8 of this year. State officials are reviewing those comments and are expected to share their findings shortly.

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Twin Metals' headquarters in Ely. Clint Austin / 2017 file / Duluth News Tribune

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Twin Metals continues to offer assurances that the state's current regulations on nonferrous mining are more than adequate.

"Minnesota’s stringent environmental standards are designed to rigorously protect our environment, which includes all of our watersheds," a company statement said.

Twin Metals has recently suffered another potential setback, when President Joe Biden's administration rejected the company's application for additional mineral leases and mining permits near the Boundary Waters in October. Twin Metals is appealing that decision.

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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