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Should the DNR ban mining within the same watershed as the BWCAW? Public comment period set

The agency must make a decision by September 2022.

File: Kawishiwi River in BWCAW
Canoeists paddle a quiet stretch of the Kawishiwi River near Ely on a day trip in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. 2002 file / Duluth News Tribune
Sam Cook / 2002 file / Duluth News Tribune
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Minnesota regulators announced a public comment period as part of its look into whether the state's laws would actually protect the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness from copper-nickel mining pollution.

In a filing Monday in State District Court in St. Paul, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources said it will accept comments from Nov. 9 through Dec. 8, 2021.

The state agency will then have until Sept. 13, 2022 to issue an initial order on whether the existing law "is adequate to protect the BWCAW from pollution, impairment, or destruction," the DNR said in court documents. Parties to the case will then have 30 days to demand a contested-case hearing on the DNR's initial order.

The DNR agreed to revisit the law — which bans mining within the BWCAW and surface disturbances from mining near the BWCAW border — after it was sued by Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness , which argues the rules under the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act are outdated and insufficient.

If successful, the rule change would effectively kill Twin Metals' proposed underground copper-nickel mine , processing plant and tailings storage facility along Birch Lake, which flows into the BWCAW via the Kawishiwi River. Environmental groups fear pollution could escape from the facility and would damage the downstream BWCAW.

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However, the DNR specifically requested comments focus on the rule it's reviewing, not the Twin Metals project.

"DNR is seeking additional information that will assist it in deciding the above issue; comments that merely support or oppose the Twin Metals Minnesota project or other proposed projects in the Rainy River-Headwaters are not responsive," the agency said in its court filing Monday.

In a news release Monday, Becky Rom, national chair of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters (Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness is campaign's lead organization) said the groups would see "success" as a full ban of copper-nickel mining within the Rainy River Watershed.

"This review will give Minnesotans 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," Rom said.

Proponents of copper-nickel mining, which has never been done in Minnesota, vowed to defend the rules.

“Ultimately, we believe the rules will be deemed adequate yet again and this exercise is a giant waste of taxpayer dollars," Jobs For Minnesotans said in a statement. "This process also sets a precedence for any other regulated industries and deters investment and job creation in our state."

Any potential rule change would not affect the planned PolyMet copper-nickel mine, which is within the St. Louis River Watershed, which empties into Lake Superior.

Separately, the DNR last month announced it had initiated the court-ordered contested-case hearing on whether PolyMet's use of bentonite clay as a sealant for its proposed tailings basin is a practical and workable technique that will meet the DNR's reactive waste rule.

Jimmy Lovrien covers energy, mining and the 8th Congressional District for the Duluth News Tribune. He can be reached at jlovrien@duluthnews.com or 218-723-5332.
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