Today the Biden administration announced that it cancelled two unlawfully reinstated Twin Metals leases for sulfide-ore copper mining next to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW). This action restores the legal interpretation of five previous presidential administrations, including both Democrats and Republicans, from Lyndon Johnson to Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama. In a press release the Department of Interior (DOI) said it determined that the expired Twin Metals leases were unlawfully reinstated by the prior administration. This reinstatement violated federal laws and regulations, including the legal requirement that the U.S. Forest Service must consent to mineral leases. In 2016, the U.S. Forest Service withheld its consent to the Twin Metals leases because of the risk to the BWCAW; this decision still stands.
“Today is a major win for Boundary Waters protection,” said Becky Rom, national chair of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters. “This action by the Biden administration re-establishes the long-standing legal consensus of five presidential administrations and marks a return of the rule of law. It also allows for science-based decision-making on where risky mining is inappropriate. It is heartening to have an administration making decisions with integrity. Twin Metals leases should never have been reinstated in the first place, and this announcement should stop the Twin Metals mine threat.”
In 2016, after a two-year scientific review, the U.S. Forest service exercised its statutory prerogative and withheld its consent to the renewal of two expired Twin Metals leases. These leases would have allowed Twin Metals to build highly toxic and polluting sulfide-ore copper mines along lakes and streams that flow directly into the Boundary Waters. The U.S. Forest Service found that “the inherent risk of irreparable harm” posed by such mining to the priceless Wilderness location could not be permitted consistent with its legal obligations to protect the Boundary Waters. Although the leases were not renewed and expired because the U.S. Forest Service withheld its consent, heavy lobbying by Antofagasta (including purchasing a house that was later rented by Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump) led to the unlawful reinstatement by the Trump administration.
“The legal decision by the U.S. Department of the Interior is an important affirmation that the rule of law is a pillar of our society,” said Tom Heffelfinger, former United States attorney, district of Minnesota and of counsel, Best & Flanagan. “The prior administration ignored the law when it reinstated the expired Antofagasta/Twin Metals leases. The decision this week rightly acknowledges the statutory right of the U.S. Forest Service to deny consent to renewal of the leases. The Department of the Interior properly determined that such disregard of law could not be allowed to stand.”
The Biden administration is currently considering whether mining in the watershed of the Boundary Waters should be banned. In October it announced the initiation of a mineral withdrawal process that could lead to a ban on mining for up to 20 years. That process results in an environmental study of the impact of sulfide-ore mining on the Boundary Waters and surrounding communities. The Biden administration announced today that Twin Metals cannot reapply for federal mineral leases in the watershed of the BWCAW at this time because of the initiation of the mineral withdrawal process.
U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum has introduced legislation to protect the Boundary Waters by permanently banning sulfide-ore mining on federal lands within the Wilderness watershed. A state counterpart to McColloum’s bill, authored by State Sen. Steve Cwodzinski and State Rep. Kelly Morrison, would ban sulfide-ore mining on state lands in the Wilderness watershed.
The Boundary Waters is the most heavily visited wilderness area in the United States, attracting more than 160,000 visitors from all over the world and helps drive more than $900 million in annual economic activity and helps support over 17,000 jobs. A peer-reviewed independent study from Harvard University showed that protecting the Boundary Waters from a proposed Twin Metals sulfide-ore copper mine would result in dramatically more jobs and more income over a 20-year period. The study, written by Harvard University’s Professor James Stock, found that:
“[T]the proposed mining would lead to a boom-bust cycle that is typical of resource extraction economies, exacerbated by the likely negative effect on the recreation industry” and that “over the 20-year time horizon of the proposed withdrawal, introducing copper-nickel mining in the Superior National Forest is likely to have a negative effect on the regional economy.”
Nearly 70% of Minnesotans support a ban on sulfide-ore copper mining near the Wilderness to permanently protect the Boundary Waters. Last week over 248,000 people submitted public comments supporting a ban on sulfide-ore copper mining in the Boundary Waters Watershed.
“This is a historic day for the Boundary Waters, and we are thankful the Biden administration recognizes that we don’t need to sacrifice our public and culturally significant lands for the profits of polluting industries,” said Blaine Miller-McFeeley, Earthjustice legislative representative. “We’ve known for a long time that the Boundary Waters is an important source of drinking water, a place of stunning wilderness, and a critical part of a vibrant local economy. It’s long past time to prioritize science over politics and permanently protect the Boundary Waters from the interests of greedy mining companies.”