ST. PAUL — The U.S. Departments of the Interior and Agriculture on Wednesday, Oct. 20, announced a pause to new copper-nickel mining leases near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and a possible 20-year prohibition or ban down the road, pending the results of a new study.
Biden administration officials prohibited new federal mineral leases within 225,500 acres of the Rainy River Watershed as officials study copper-nickel mining, following a similar move by the Obama administration that was later reversed by the Trump administration. In their announcement, they said the move was aimed at protecting "the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and surrounding watershed in northeastern Minnesota, a unique natural wonder and one of the jewels of the National Wilderness Preservation System."
Labor and environmental groups were quick to sound off on the decision Wednesday, as were policymakers. Here's what Minnesota officials had to say about the decision.
U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber, a Republican representing Minnesota's 8th Congressional District, on Wednesday, blasted the Biden administration for reversing the Trump administration's action and again initiating the study.
“Quite simply, President Biden is putting politics over science," Stauber said in a news release. "Nearly a year ago, candidate Joe Biden pledged to support Minnesota’s miners in their mission to obtain good-paying mining jobs, bring economic prosperity to a region that desperately needs it, and secure America’s critical mineral supply chain. Joe Biden has officially failed to uphold this promise. This decision is unacceptable on every level, and I will not stop until it has been reversed.”
State lawmakers from the region echoed that sentiment in separate releases Wednesday morning and said the decision could hurt the region's economy.
“Threatening to halt development of this project puts billions of dollars at risk for the state and region," state Rep. Spencer Igo, R-Grand Rapids, said. "Our communities, schools, workers, and entire Northland economy will feel the negative impacts of this decision for years to come. Mining is our past, present, and future as we work to bring our best days to reality."
Rep. Rob Ecklund, DFL-International Falls, represents the district that includes the potential Twin Metals mine site and the BWCAW. He said the announcement would set up a process that was "duplicative, unnecessary, and arbitrary, preventing us from even considering the project and its potential to boost our regional economy."
"Like any proposal of this magnitude, Twin Metals will be studied and scrutinized, along with a substantial opportunity for public input provided," Ecklund said. "Living in northern Minnesota, we’d expect nothing less."
Independent state Sens. Tom Bakk, of Cook, and Dave Tomassoni, of Chisolm, along with Sen. Justin Eichorn, R-Grand Rapids, said the decision was "shortsighted and costly to the American worker."
"It forces the U.S. to rely on foreign sources of metal mined by cheap labor, performed often times by 12 year-old children," they said.
Democrats in Minnesota's Congressional delegation voiced support for the decision Wednesday, saying it could help protect the BWCAW.
U.S. Sen. Tina Smith said she was glad to see the administration re-start the study, which was terminated in 2018.
“Mining is an important tradition in Northeast Minnesota and an ongoing source of good jobs,' Smith said. "At the same time, the BWCAW is fragile and most Minnesotans understand that we can’t afford to be wrong about its protection. This study will help us get the safety of mining in the BWCAW watershed right.”
U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, a Democrat representing Minnesota's 4th Congressional District, applauded the decision and said it marked a "welcome return to the science-based decision making that should govern the management of our public lands." McCollum has carried legislation that would permanently withdraw 234,328 acres of federal lands and waters from sulfide-ore copper mining.
“After years of broken promises and ongoing obstruction of taxpayer-funded data from the prior administration, I am pleased that President Biden is committed to completing the necessary analysis to understand the impacts that sulfide-ore mining could have on this priceless reserve of fresh water, the biodiverse habitat it supports, and the economic livelihood of the surrounding community," Rep. McCollum said. "All of us who care deeply about protecting the pristine Boundary Waters and its watershed for future generations look forward to seeing the results of this comprehensive study.”