Hundreds of people concerned about the proposed Twin Metals copper mine near Ely, both for and against, are expected to gather Thursday at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center for a public hearing that some expect may not matter after all.
The U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Bureau of Land Management are holding a joint meeting on their plan for a moratorium on new mining near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
The plan, announced in December, would keep Twin Metals from advancing its mine along the Kawishiwi River just outside the BWCAW. But it would also ban any new exploration or mining across nearly 235,000 acres adjoining the federal wilderness.
The moratorium, along with a decision not to renew mineral exploration leases for Twin Metals, was initiated by the federal agencies during the last months of the Obama administration with officials deciding the region's pristine lakes and rivers may be too sensitive to withstand any potential water pollution from copper mining waste or a mine mishap.
Supporters of copper mining in Minnesota say precautions will be taken to prevent any pollution of the region's waterways and that the new kind of mining will provide jobs that will help gird the region against the cyclical nature of the iron mining industry.
While the meeting in the DECC's Symphony Hall will be seen as another litmus test of public sentiment on the proposed mine - supporters and critics will likely show up in force with buttons and banners - the public comments will be used to help guide the agencies as they develop an environmental review of mining in the area before a final decision is made.
Both sides say they want a strong showing.
Bob McFarlin, spokesman for Twin Metals, said the current process remains "critically important." The proposal to withdraw 235,000 acres from any future mining "would prove devastating to the region's economy."
"This is a regional and state economic issue, not an exclusive Twin Metals issue," McFarlin added. "All citizens who support a prosperous future for the Iron Range and Northeastern Minnesota, and who opposed this unnecessary draconian federal government proposal, should make their opinions known to the government either in writing or at the public meeting."
Becky Rom, national chair for the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, encouraged "every citizen who cares about our public lands to participate in decisions regarding the future of this national treasure."
"The life of our country presents pivotal moments when as Americans we can choose to go in one direction or another. For the iconic Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, we are at one of those moments," Rom said. "If we choose poorly we could lose forever the Boundary Waters, a world-class hunting, angling and recreation wilderness."
But the meeting may not matter, eventually, because it's widely believed the new Trump administration will overturn the moratorium, approve leases and allow Twin Metals to get back to exploration and planning for the massive underground copper-nickel mine. Trump's cabinet appointments and his statements have leaned heavily toward approving more extractive resource projects, not less.
So far the Obama-era policy has not been overturned, however, so the agencies continue to work toward the moratorium that also comes with a two-year study on mining in the BWCAW vicinity. That study could lead to a 20-year ban on mining in the areas around the BWCAW.
"Our direction from our national office is to move ahead with scoping'' the parameters of the proposed environmental review, said Kris Reichenbach, spokeswoman for the Superior National Forest.
Nancy Norr, chair of the Jobs For Minnesotans coalition of labor, industry and municipal officials, said she's "not in the camp that this whole (moratorium) is just going to go away."
"Now that this action has been initiated we need to stay involved in this process and explain" why the agencies made the wrong decision, Norr said, adding that the primary message is that the government should stick to its normal procedure for evaluating mining projects and not impose a new layer of roadblocks.
"Those mineral deposits represent an enormous economic opportunity for our state," said Norr, who is also director of regional development for Minnesota Power. "Jobs and a clean environment can coexist in this state."
The proposed Twin Metals underground mine, in the Rainy River watershed that flows north into Canada, would employ about 800 people, although no formal proposal has been submitted for review by regulators. It estimated to cost about $2.8 billion and would be much larger than the proposed open-pit PolyMet copper mine about 35 miles to the south, which is in the St. Louis River watershed that flows into Lake Superior.
If you go
Public informational and comment session
Proposed federal moratorium on mining near the BWCAW
U.S. Forest Service/U.S. Bureau of Land Management
DECC Symphony Hall, Duluth
Thursday, March 16, 5-7:30 p.m.
To see the proposal go to www.fs.usda.gov/superior and click on Withdrawal of Federal Minerals in Rainy River Watershed from Exploration and Development project page. Comments may be submitted via email to: firstname.lastname@example.org. The public comment period has been extended to August 17.