ELY, Minn. (KMSP) - The Trump Administration removed an obstacle Thursday to copper-nickel mining near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in northern Minnesota.
In 2016, the Obama Administration withdrew approximately 234,000 acres of the Rainy River watershed from eligibility for mineral leasing to conduct an extensive review of the environmental to the proposed mineral activities.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture canceled the withdrawal Thursday, saying its review did not reveal any new scientific information. It says interested companies may soon be able to sign mineral leases in the watershed.
"It’s our duty as responsible stewards of our environment to maintain and protect our natural resources,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a statement. “At the same time, we must put our national forests to work for the taxpayers to support local economies and create jobs.”
The Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters denounced the decision, saying the Trump Administration “ignored science and facts” in canceling the withdrawal. The organization claims the USDA did not complete the promised study of the potential harm that mining would do to the area.
“The Trump Administration broke it’s word to us, to Congress, and to the American people when it said it would finish the environmental assessment and base decisions on facts and science,” Alex Falconer, executive director of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, said in a statement.
U.S. Rep. Betsy McCollum, who represents Minnesota’s Fourth Congressional District and is the lead Democrat on the House subcommittee that funds the Department of the Interior and the U.S. Forest Service, said Perdue explicitly committed to completing the two-year environmental review.
“Today, Secretary Perdue broke his word, bending to political pressure from a foreign mining company and abandoning sound science to give a green light to toxic sulfide-ore mining in the watershed that feeds the BWCA,” McCollum said in a statement.
McCollum said Perdue’s word “cannot be trusted.”
Twin Metals Minnesota, owned by Chilean mining conglomerate Antofagasta, praised the federal government’s decision. The Obama Administration declined to renew the company’s mineral leases for a proposed copper-nickel mine near Ely in the final weeks of 2016, but President Donald Trump reinstated the expired leases in May. Several environmental groups are challenging that decision in court.
“This important action ensures that federal lands that have been open to responsible mining activity for decades will remain open, offering the Iron Range region the potential for thousands of new jobs and billions of dollars in economic growth,” Twin Metals said in a statement.
Nancy Norr, of Jobs for Minnesotans said the benefits of mining activity and the jobs it will bring to the region is the most important thing.
"Appropriately named organization when you're talking about the potential for thousands of new jobs associated with future mining activity in the Superior National Forest in Northern Minnesota," she said.
For Peter Marshall, of Friends of the Boundary Waters, the mines' proximity to the waters is troublesome.
"While mines wouldn't be in the Boundary Waters, they would be on land, near rivers, near lakes that feed into the Boundary Waters," Marshall said.
Overall, Norr supports the decision, saying that removing the obstacles for investment will be a net positive for the area.
"This is not a rubberstamp for future mining per se, it is an opportunity for these mining companies to return to an established, fair, regulatory process that allows them the opportunity to invest and explore," she said.
"It is just on the doorstep of the BWCA," said Lukas Leaf, of Sportsman for the Boundary Waters. "It is, of course, in the Boundary Waters, that can't be done, but it is so close that no matter what...that when it does, it will flow directly into the boundary waters."