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Bill would restart study on mining near Boundary Waters

Twin Metals headquarters in Ely. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

DULUTH — U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, D-St. Paul, wants the U.S. Forest Service to complete a study on the environmental effects of Twin Metals’ controversial copper-nickel mine proposed near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness before the project can move forward.

A bill report authored by McCollum released Tuesday, May 21, accompanying the Department of the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations Bill, directs the Department of Agriculture to conduct a scientific, environmental review of potential impacts a copper-nickel mine within the Rainy River Watershed Watershed could have on the BWCAW and Superior National Forest.

“Until the departments address the question of whether mining, especially copper-sulfide ore mining, is appropriate on National Forest System lands in the Rainy River Watershed, no action to advance mining in this area should occur,” the bill report said.

Twin Metals, owned by Chilean mining conglomerate Antofagasta, is hoping to build a large underground copper-nickel mine near Ely, within the Rainy River Watershed and on the edge of the BWCAW. Twin Metals intends to store the tailings near Babbitt, which is in the St. Louis River watershed.

Critics say the project could send tainted runoff into the BWCAW while supporters say the mine would bring much-needed jobs to the region.

Just last week, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management formally renewed Twin Metals’ federal mineral leases.

In a statement Tuesday afternoon, Twin Metals said an environmental review would not be needed as the project would undergo a similar review once the company submits its formal proposal later this year to federal and state agencies.

“We believe the recommendation and budget appropriation is unnecessary and redundant to a process that is already well established in law and policy,” Twin Metals said. “In the coming months, TMM will submit its mine proposal to state and federal agencies, launching an extensive and rigorous environmental and scientific review by regulatory agencies, a process which requires significant input from the public — exactly what Congresswoman McCollum is seeking.”

Tom Landwehr, executive director of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, which opposes Twin Metals, said he supported McCollum’s legislation as the environmental review of the mine is much needed.

“This legislation is necessary because the Trump administration is hellbent on steamrolling through this risky mining project near a pristine Wilderness without acknowledging the inherent problems,” Landwehr said in a statement Tuesday morning.

The environmental review started once before during the Obama administration, but was curbed and then stopped completely by the Trump administration.

In its final days, the Obama administration ordered the U.S. Forest Service, a branch of the USDA, to conduct an environmental impact statement — the most thorough level of environmental review — of the potential impacts of copper mining on the BWCAW and Superior National Forest.

During a May 2017 House Interior-Environment Appropriations Subcommittee, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue assured McCollum the USDA would not block the environmental review.

“We are absolutely allowing that to proceed. … No decision will be made prior to the conclusion of that,” Perdue said.

But by Jan. 2018, the Forest Service announced it would not conduct an environmental impact statement and would instead conduct an environmental assessment, a less-stringent study.

By Sept. 2018, the Forest Service had abandoned the environmental assessment, too.

A Forest Service spokesperson at the time said a "science-based analysis" with public input showed no need for further environmental studies.

"Due to what we learned over that time, we determined there was not any need to complete the process on an environmental assessment," the spokesperson said.

Last week, different legislation by McCollum aimed at Twin Metals advanced in the U.S. House. Her wording, in the State Department financing bill that passed the House Appropriations Committee, would require federal agencies to report to the Canadian government any potential environmental impacts of copper mining in the Rainy River watershed as it flows north out of Minnesota into Ontario.