Plans for a copper-nickel mine near the BWCA have been blocked

People worried about the environment are happy. The mining company is not.
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A new mine that would harvest copper, nickel and other metals from land in the Superior National Forest won't be happening.

Twin Metals Minnesota had asked the federal government to renew its decades-old leases on the land, so it could start mining near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

But after a public back and forth between supporters (more jobs!) and opponents (the environment!), the federal government Thursday said it would not renew the leases – blocking the mine over fears of what it could do to the wilderness area.

Quick: What Twin Metals wanted

Twin Metals is owned by Chile-based Antofagasta PLC – one of the top 10 copper producers in the world.

The land that Twin Metals wanted to use covers an area southeast of Ely, north and south of Highway 1, near Birch Lake and the Kawishiwi River, the Duluth News Tribune has said.

Twin Metals has had leases for the land since 1966. But they've never actually done any mining on it before. And DL-Online says Twin Metal Minnesota's leases have never been environmentally reviewed because they were issued before environmental regulations existed.

But in 2015, Twin Metals asked for access to state land to do exploratory work. The DNR gave them permission, but Gov. Mark Dayton – saying he had "grave concerns" about how close it was to the Boundary Waters – blocked it.

In the meantime, the federal Bureau of Land Management (which oversees the land Twin Metals wants to use) was weighing whether to give the mining company permission to go ahead with work.

Why the decision Thursday?

Then Thursday's announcement: The Department of Agriculture's U.S. Forest Service decided not to renew the Twin Metals leases – and so the bureau, following their lead, rejected the renewal application.

In addition, they're taking some of the land and putting it in essentially a "time out" zone – for two years, there can be no new mineral work while a big environmental study of the potential impact is done. During that time, the agencies will also do a study to determine if the land should be taken off the table for 20 years (the maximum allowed by law).

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack called the Boundary Waters "a natural treasure, special to the 150,000 who canoe, fish, and recreate there each year, and is the economic life blood to local business that depend on a pristine natural resource."

Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell called the decision "the right action to take to avoid irrevocably damaging this watershed and its recreation-based economy, while also taking the time and space to review whether to further protect the area from all new mining."

Twin Metals said it was "greatly disappointed," and called it "contrary to the overwhelming majority of local and regional citizens." (A recent Duluth News Tribune poll found 65 percent of residents in the region were in support of copper-nickel mines there.)

The company said the decision "will have a devastating impact on the future economy of the Iron Range and all of northeast Minnesota, eliminating the promise of thousands of good-paying jobs and billions of dollars in investment in the region."

They're going to evaluate exactly what this means, but plan to push forward – possibly with legal challenges, the statement says.

Local reaction

Dayton liked this. In a statement, the governor called it "tremendous news" to protect "a crown jewel in Minnesota, and a national treasure."

"It is important to note that this decision is not in opposition to mining, but in defense of a pristine and priceless environmental wonder," he said. "We must continue doing all we can to support good jobs and a strong economy in northeastern Minnesota, while ensuring the protection of our greatest natural resources."

But that's kind of where Rep. Rick Nolan – who represents northeastern Minnesota, where the mine would be, in the U.S. House – has an issue.

He called it an "anti-mining, anti-jobs decision" for a region that's been hit hard by mining layoffs in recent years.

"Minnesota’s Iron Range got a real slap in the face and a punch in the gut by Washington bureaucrats this morning," he said, then slammed the decision to also halt any new mining projects on other land for at least a couple years.

"To be sure, we must protect our environment – the BWCA in particular – but we should never be afraid of exploration and discovery, or using science and facts to dictate important decisions," Nolan said. He added they'll work with the new Congress and Trump administration on future mining projects.

Groups like Save the BWCA ...

... and Friends of the BWCAW ...

... quickly applauded the decision.

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