DULUTH — The United States Department of Agriculture will no longer pursue a mineral withdrawal proposal in the Rainy River Watershed and Superior National Forest, effectively allowing mining companies to obtain mineral leases within the watershed and leaving an environmental assessment incomplete, the federal agency announced Thursday, Sept. 6.
Ordered by the Obama administration in 2016, the mineral withdrawal was intended to help federal officials decide if about 234,000 acres of the Superior National Forest outside the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness should be exempt from all mining activity for 20 years.
It’s a win for the proposed Twin Metals copper mine along the Kawishiwi River near Ely, within the Rainy River Watershed and on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, but a loss to critics who say the project could send tainted runoff into the BWCAW.
Twin Metals intends to store the tailings near Babbitt, which is in the St. Louis River watershed.
Twin Metals, a wholly owned subsidiary of Chilean mining conglomerate Antofagasta, won back critical federal mineral leases in early May previously withheld by the Obama administration.
In a statement Thursday, Twin Metals CEO Kelly Osborne said the company supported Thursday’s announcement.
“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,” Osborne said.
Mining is still banned within the BWCAW.
The Trump administration has pushed to reopen the national forest for mining.
In Jan. 2018, the U.S. Forest Service, a branch of the USDA, announced they would not conduct an environmental impact statement, the most-thorough level of environmental review of potential copper mining impacts, on the BWCAW as part of the mineral withdrawal, and would instead conduct an environmental assessment, a less-stringent study.
At the time, U.S. Forest Service officials said that, if the environmental assessment turns up new evidence of more serious environmental consequences, a full-scale environmental impact statement still could be ordered.
During a May 2017 House Interior-Environment Appropriations Subcommittee, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue assured U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., that the USDA would not block the environmental review.
“We are absolutely allowing that to proceed … No decision will be made prior to the conclusion of that,” Perdue said.
However, Brady Smith, U.S. Forest Service spokesperson, confirmed in an email Thursday that the environmental assessment will not be completed because a “science-based analysis” with public input showed no need for further environmental studies.
“Due to what we learned over that time, we determined there was not any need to complete the process on an environmental assessment,” the spokesperson said.
Alex Falconer, executive director of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, a group opposed to copper mining in northern Minnesota, expressed frustration with Thursday’s announcement.
“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,” Falconer said in a statement.
Among project supporters, Frank Ongaro, executive director of Mining-Minnesota, a copper-nickel mining advocacy group, praised the USDA’s announcement.
“This is very positive news for future economic opportunities for the region,” Ongaro said.
Opponents of the project like Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness have a very different view.
“Today, the Trump administration did a huge favor to Twin Metals and other foreign mining companies who will profit off our public land, pollute a unique ecosystem and harm the thriving economy built around this wilderness,“ the organization said in a statement.