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Biden administration moves to block copper mine near Boundary Waters

The Biden administration took the first step to quash a proposed copper mine near the popular Boundary Waters wilderness area in northeastern Minnesota on Wednesday with an inter-agency request to block mineral leases in the area for 20 years. It was a change in course from the Trump era, when the government smiled on the proposed Twin Metals mine.

“A significant victory,” said the conservation group Save the Boundary Waters. Twin Metals Minnesota said it would “continue advancing our proposed world-class underground copper, nickel, cobalt, and platinum group metals mine.” The mine would be located on public land in the Rainy River watershed, part of Superior National Forest, and 5 miles from the Boundary Waters.

The Forest Service asked the Bureau of Land Management for a 20-year ban on mineral leases on 225,378 acres in the Rainy River watershed, which includes the mine site. The request, formally known as a withdrawal application, would initiate an environmental analysis of the impacts of mining on natural and cultural resources in the watershed. No new leases could be issued during the two-year study.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said the administration was “taking an important and sensible step to ensure that we have all the science and public input necessary to make informed decisions” about mining in the region. “A place like the Boundary Waters should be enjoyed by and protected for everyone, not only today but for future generations.”

The Twin Metals mine has been an issue for federal officials for years. In December 2016, weeks before leaving office, the Obama administration refused to renew mineral leases held by Twin Metals Minnesota and proposed a 20-year ban on new mines in the Rainy River watershed. Twenty months into the two-year study, the Trump administration halted the review and renewed the mineral leases for Twin Metals.

In a joint release, the Interior and Agriculture departments said they would consider anew a moratorium on mineral leasing in the Rainy River basin “in response to broad concerns about potential impacts on the wilderness area’s watershed, fish and wildlife, tribal trust and treaty rights, and the nearly $100 million annual recreation economy.”

Twin Metals Minnesota holds two leases within the Rainy River watershed “that are currently in litigation,” said the release. The federal study does not apply to private land. The mining company said the Rainy River land “sits on top of the world’s largest known undeveloped copper-nickel deposit…We are firmly dedicated to the communities of northeast Minnesota and to advancing a sustainable mining project that will bring much-needed economic growth to our region.”

“You don’t allow America’s most toxic industry next to America’s most popular Wilderness,” said Becky Rom of Save the Boundary Waters. “This is a great first step on the pathway to permanent protection. The appropriate next step for the administration is to revoke the two Twin Metals leases that the Trump administration unlawfully reinstated.”

The Boundary Waters wilderness area extends for 150 miles along the U.S.-Canada border and covers nearly 1.1 million acres, or more than 1,700 square miles, of the Superior National Forest. More than 150,000 people visit the wilderness area each year, say Minnesota tourism officials.

Republican Rep. Pete Stauber, who represents the northeastern quadrant of Minnesota, said “President Biden is putting politics over science” to prevent mining in northern Minnesota.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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