Feds Halt Mining Plans in Minnesota Wilderness

(CN) – The federal government denied the renewal of two mining leases near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, which consists of more than one million acres of federally protected lakes and forests in northeastern Minnesota.

In 2012, Twin Metals Minnesota filed for renewal of the two hard rock mineral leases it holds in the Superior National Forest, within three miles of the Boundary Waters.

The two leases were originally issued in 1966 and most recently renewed in 2004, but no mineral production has occurred on either lease even though both allowed the mining of copper, nickel and associated minerals on the leased lands, according to a statement from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The mining company has proposed a cooper-nickel mine that it says will create hundreds of jobs for Minnesotans, but its plans have been put on hold by the government’s decision.

“The Boundary Waters is 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,” Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said in a statement Thursday. “I have asked Interior to take a time out, conduct a careful environmental analysis and engage the public on whether future mining should be authorized on any federal land next door to the Boundary Waters.”

Twin Metals Minnesota’s application rejection follows concerns from thousands of people who submitted public comments and input about the potential impacts of mining on the wilderness area’s watershed, fish and wildlife, and nearly $45 million recreation economy, the government says.

This past summer, the Agriculture Department’s U.S. Forest Service held two listening sessions and a 30-day public input period related to the lease renewal and received more than 30,000 comments.

The Agriculture Department says the decision to withhold consent and study the impacts of copper and nickel mining near the Boundary Waters echoes the concerns of the community, including former Vice President Walter Mondale and Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, who has said Minnesota will not authorize any new state access or lease agreements for mining near the wilderness area.

Twin Metals Minnesota said in a statement that its leases have been in good standing with the federal government for more than 50 years and have been renewed twice without any controversy.

“Twin Metals is greatly disappointed in the action announced today by the [U.S. Bureau of Land Management] and the USFS to deny renewal of two of the company’s long-standing and valid mineral leases in Minnesota, and to initiate actions to withdraw federal lands and minerals from future exploration and development,” the company said. “If allowed to stand, the BLM-USFS actions 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. Further, this unprecedented decision is contrary to the overwhelming majority of local and regional citizens and communities who support mining and believe mining can be done responsibly in this region.”

On Sept. 12 of this year, Twin Metals Minnesota and its subsidiary Franconia Minerals sued the agencies, seeking to quiet title to their renewable leasehold interest in the land.

The companies claimed they invested about $400 million to explore and then develop the hard rock minerals, and have identified one of the largest untapped copper and nickel resources in the world, with an estimated value of more than $40 billion of in-ground mineral value.

“Plaintiffs also possess adjacent state and private mineral leases, as well as additional valid existing federal mineral rights, that together total another $90 billion of in-ground mineral value,” their complaint states. “Given the interconnected nature of the mineral deposits on these various lands, denying plaintiffs’ right to renew their federal mineral leases also impairs these other mineral rights.”

Twin Metal Minnesota says it is now assessing the impact of the government’s decision not to renew its leases and will pursue legal options to protect its mineral rights.

“There’s a reason that the Boundary Waters is one of the most visited wilderness area in America: it’s an incredible place,” U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said. “Today’s best available science is helping us understand the value of the land and water and potential impacts of development in places like the Boundary Waters. This is 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.”

The Boundary Waters has about 150,000 visitors per year, making it one of the most visited wilderness areas in the United States.