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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Boundary Waters Mining Leases Canceled

Air Date: Week of

Morning light on South Temperance Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (Photo: briandjan607, Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

For years Twin Metals Minnesota has sought to mine for copper and nickel just outside the pristine Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, but the Biden administration recently cancelled two federal mining leases the company needs to begin operations. Dan Kraker is a reporter for Minnesota Public Radio and has the story.


BASCOMB: The Boundary Waters Canoe Area is more than a million acres of forests, lakes, and streams in Northern Minnesota. It straddles roughly 150 miles along the US Canada border, hence the name Boundary Waters. It’s also close to Voyageurs National Park as well as state and provincial parks in Minnesota and Ontario. The area is a mecca for hikers, campers, canoeists and mine developers. For years Twin Metals Minnesota has sought to mine for copper and nickel near Ely, Minnesota just outside the Boundary waters, but the Biden administration recently cancelled two federal mine leases the company needs to begin operations. That decision reverses the green light for the project given by the previous Administration. Dan Kraker is a reporter for Minnesota Public Radio and has the story.

KRAKER: For years the proposed Twin Metals mine has bitterly divided people in and around Ely. Supporters have pushed for the hundreds of high-paying jobs the mine would create and billions of dollars it would pump into the region's economy. Opponents, including canoe outfitter Steve Piragis, have argued pollution from the mine would devastate the Boundary Waters and the recreation-based economy it supports.

PIRAGIS: This represents a major lifting of kind of that black cloud that's hung over Ely for maybe 10 years now, the copper-nickel has put there, economically and environmentally.

KRAKER: Twin Metals has proposed a $1.7 billion mine along the shore of Birch Lake, a few miles east of Ely, just south of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, and it's already spent $500 million developing it. The company's plan submitted to state and federal regulators depends in large part on two federal mineral leases the government first issued more than 50 years ago. But now the Department of the Interior says those leases are no longer valid, after determining they were improperly reinstated and then renewed by the Trump administration.

People canoeing at Oyster Lake in the Boundary Waters while a rainbow crosses the sky (Photo: A. Strakey, Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

LEE: We think this decision is awesome.

KRAKER: Jack Lee is executive director of the Voyager Outward Bound School located outside Ely, near Twin Metals' proposed mine. He says the school has taken thousands of students into the wilderness over the past 55 years.

LEE: The proposed Twin Metals mine would have very likely polluted the Boundary Waters, and that would have ended our ability to serve our mission and serve all these young people. We've considered other locations but there's nothing, nothing like the untouched, pure Boundary Waters.

KRAKER: In a statement Twin Metals says it will challenge the lease cancellation. It called the decision a political action intended to stop Twin Metals without conducting the environmental review prescribed in law. That review process began when Twin Metals submitted its mining plans to state and federal regulators in 2019. Brian Hanson, Chair of the group Jobs for Minnesotans, says it should be allowed to continue.

HANSON: We want our government officials, our regulators to follow the process. Nothing more, nothing less. We just want a fair process. We want these projects to get reviewed using science, not undermined using politics.

Silhouetted trees at dusk in the Boundary Waters (Photo: briandjan607, Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

KRAKER: The Interior Department decision is the latest in a long legal back and forth over the mineral leases that spanned the last three federal administrations. The Obama administration first declined to renew the leases back in 2016. But the Trump administration reversed that decision. Now this Biden administration move once again leaves Twin Metals without its two federal mineral leases. In a separate effort, the Biden administration has also proposed a 20-year moratorium on new copper-nickel mining proposals within the watershed of the Boundary Waters, in the same area Twin Metals wants to dig. The government says it's taking that step because of the pollution risks mining poses to the Boundary Waters. Mining supporters say together, those efforts block projects that could provide important metals needed for wind turbines and electric car batteries.

ONGARO: The Biden administration is, you know, talking out of both sides of its mouth.

KRAKER: Frank Ongaro is executive director of Mining Minnesota.

ONGARO: On one hand, it wants domestic critical minerals for a supply chain to address climate change. And on the other hand, it's locking us out of the vast majority of the U.S. supply of these metals. That's extremely hypocritical.

KRAKER: Ongaro declined to speculate on the future of Twin Metals. But he says northeastern Minnesota is a patchwork quilt of federal, state and private mineral ownership, and it's difficult to develop an economically viable project without access to all of them. In a statement, the Minnesota DNR said the federal action, quote, "raises significant questions about the feasibility of Twin Metals' project as proposed." The agency says it will carefully consider what this means for the state

CURWOOD: That story from Dan Kraker comes to us courtesy of Minnesota Public Radio.



Minnesota Public Radio | “Biden administration cancels Twin Metals’ leases to mine near Boundary Waters Canoe Area”

Department of Interior statement on the lease cancellation


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