ELY, Minn.-The U.S. Forest Service on Friday, Jan. 26, said it will not conduct the most-thorough level of environmental review of potential copper mining impacts on the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northeastern Minnesota and will instead conduct a less-stringent study.
The Forest Service, a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said it will conduct an environmental assessment of the potential impact of copper-nickel mining on the 1.1 million-acre, lake-studded wilderness.
That's a dramatic downscaling from a proposal one year ago, under the Obama administration, which called for a full-scale environmental impact statement.
The results of the environmental review are intended to help federal officials decide if about 234,000 acres near the wilderness would be off-limits to all mining activity for 20 years. If the decision is no, mining exploration activities could resume in the area as early as January 2019.
Friday's decision by the Trump administration is another push forward for the proposed Twin Metals copper mine along the Kawishiwi River near Ely, Minn., on the edge of the BWCAW. In December, the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management said it would give back to Twin Metals federal mineral leases that had been ordered withheld one year ago under the Obama administration. Without access to those minerals the project, just off Minnesota Highway 1, likely would have been dead.
The lesser environmental assessment is likely to take less time and require less input. The Forest Service said it expects to finish the review by late 2018, ensuring enough time for consideration by the Bureau of Land Management and Secretary of the Interior before a temporary mining moratorium expires in January 2019.
The Forest Service said it made the decision after receiving more than 90,000 comments during a 210-day public scoping period. The lesser study was ordered "due to the absence of significant environmental impacts identified during the scoping period."
That directly contradicts statements made by Forest Service officials under the Obama administration that the agency had grave concerns that a copper mine on the edge of the wilderness could cause major problems, namely acidic mine runoff that could taint downstream waters inside the wilderness.
"While the science indicates significant environmental impacts are unlikely to result from the proposed withdrawal, I am deeply aware of the controversy regarding socio-economic implications," Connie Cummins, Superior National Forest supervisor, said in a statement Friday.
Cummins 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.
Twin Metals and mining supporters have said the company should be given the chance to develop its proposal, submit the plan for environmental review and apply for permits based on its own merits, not a generic opposition to mining near the BWCAW.
"They've concluded what we've been saying all along. There is no significant impact you can measure until there's a specific project proposed, and there is no project proposed at this point," said Frank Ongaro, executive director of Mining Minnesota, the copper industry trade group. "This is an important step in the right direction. But they should really just rescind the entire study and let it go."
U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Minn., agreed.
"This decision by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Bureau of Land Management is the sensible and correct one, based on facts and science," Nolan said in a statement.
But critics say the inherent risks of copper mining so near the wilderness is too high, and they blasted the Forest Service for reversing course.
"There's no room for shortcuts when it comes to the Boundary Waters," said Doug Niemela, manager of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters. "We are very concerned about the U.S. Forest Service's decision to downgrade the study on the risks to the Boundary Waters from an environmental impact statement to an environmental assessment."
Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, who has allowed the PolyMet copper project to advance just 30 miles to the south of where Twin Metals would be located, on Friday continued his criticism of the Trump administration's policy on BWCAW-area mining. Dayton said the federal government was "putting the financial interests of the Chilean mining conglomerate Antofagasta ahead of protecting the Boundary Waters Canoe Area for generations of Minnesotans and other Americans."
"I urge the administration to disclose who persuaded it to steamroll responsible review and protection of this priceless natural resource in favor of copper-nickel mining profits," Dayton added.
The Forest Service will accept additional public comments on its changed plans through February. For more information or to make comments, go to go.usa.gov/xnfQh.
A bill in Congress that would end the moratorium and hand back the leases passed the full U.S. House in November, although it hadn't yet advanced in the Senate.
The Forest Service action does not affect any area within the BWCAW, where mining remains prohibited.
Twin Metals is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Chile-based Antofagasta. The company has said it may be ready to submit the project for environmental review later this year, if it is able to renew the leases. The project is estimated at over $1.6 billion.
Twin Metals has released results from minerals exploration saying the massive underground mine would produce about 20,000 tons of ore per day, employ about 650 people and produce valuable minerals for at least 30 years-including billions of pounds of copper and nickel along with platinum, palladium, gold and silver.