Thursday marked the last day of an extended public comment period for people to weigh in on a U.S. Forest Service's proposal to halt mining near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness for at least two years, and conduct an environmental review of potential copper-mining impacts.
The proposal has drawn both strong support and vigorous opposition for months, including at public hearings held in Duluth, St. Paul and Virginia. Backers of the moratorium gathered again in Duluth on Thursday to reiterate their support for the plan.
The Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters submitted what it said were more than 125,000 public comments to the Forest Service.
"According to the state of Minnesota, with over 125,000 comments submitted, this is the most participation an environmental impact statement has ever generated in the history of Minnesota," the campaign's media relations director, Scott Beauchamp, said at a news conference outside the Superior National Forest headquarters in Duluth. "We are very excited and encouraged by the amount of citizen participation we saw in support of the Boundary Waters."
In January the U.S. Forest Service proposed a two-year pause on mining across 234,328 acres in the Superior National Forest, within the Rainy River watershed on the edges of the BWCAW, while a general environmental review takes place - the results of which could lead to a 20-year moratorium. The moratorium would keep Twin Metals from advancing its proposed copper mine just outside the BWCAW.
The Forest Service extended an initial 90-day public comment period by another 120 days because of the amount of public interest.
Critics of copper mining agree with the Forest Service assessment that copper mining may pose too great a threat to BWCAW waters no matter how many precautions are taken.
Supporters of copper mining say the moratorium subverts the usual process in which projects are allowed to advance through environmental review and toward permitting before decisions are made on their potential impact.
Nancy Norr, board chair of Jobs for Minnesotans, a pro-mining organization that opposes the moratorium, said Thursday that the group made an extensive effort to educate and inform stakeholders during the comment period - and its work doesn't end there.
"We will continue to press forward on the idea this was an unprecedented action that was unnecessary and completely diverted from the normal process of environmental review," Norr said of the Forest Service's actions.
U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, who has railed against and sought to overturn the moratorium, said in June that mining companies in 2017, such as Twin Metals, have "the brains, the science and the technology to have both" a clean environment and mining jobs.
U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minn. - who joined Nolan on a tour of Northeastern Minnesota mining sites in June - has proposed a bill to prevent the Forest Service from withdrawing mining rights without the approval of Congress.
In Duluth on Thursday, speakers at the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters news conference expressed concerns about potential negative health effects from proposed mining projects near the BWCAW.
"We can't just look at short-term gains and jobs (created) by the mining industry. We need to look at what the negative impacts are of this type of mining on human health," said Dr. Margaret Saracino, a child and adolescent psychiatrist.
Dr. Debbie Allert, the director of the Lake Superior Chapter of Minnesota Academy of Family Physicians, said hardrock mining can produce five of the 10 chemicals, or groups of chemicals, the World Health Organization lists as of "major public health concern" - mercury, lead, arsenic, asbestos and air pollution.
"We are trying to protect our patients and our communities from what we believe may have significant potential to increase toxins in our water and food supply," she said.
The thousands of comments collected during the past seven months will be used to inform the development of an environmental impact statement for the proposed mining moratorium, the Forest Service said.
Upon completion of the environmental impact statement - barring other action to overturn the moratorium - Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke will make the call on whether or not the two-year halt on mining should extend to 20 years.