Environmental Groups Seek to Halt Minnesota Mining Project

Oyster Lake in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. (A. Strakey via Flickr)

(CN) — A coalition of environmental advocates and outdoor outfitters renewed their push to stop a controversial mining project near Minnesota’s Boundary Waters in federal court on Wednesday.

The plaintiffs include five conservation groups, a canoe manufacturer, five outfitters and two outdoor-activity nonprofits.

Their complaint alleged that the Bureau of Land Management violated the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to prepare an environmental impact statement before renewing the leases of land in the Superior National Forest for the Twin Metals copper-nickel mining project near the small town of Ely.

The bureau also did not adequately consider the impacts of the project or a no-action alternative as required under NEPA. They also targeted the U.S. Forest Service for apparently consenting to the leases, according to the lawsuit.

That consent, the plaintiffs argued, represents an unexplained reversal in policy following a 2016 determination by the organization that developing a mine under the leases could result in acid mine drainage and harm the Boundary Waters.

“The Trump administration has approved leases for a mine which the Forest Service previously refused to allow because of how damaging it will be to the environment,” Elizabeth Forsyth, an attorney with environmental law firm Earthjustice, said in a press release.

“Instead of grappling with the mine’s impacts, the administration has ignored them and rushed its approval with almost no environmental analysis. The Trump administration’s brazen disregard for the law, and blind eye towards the devastating impacts of what it is approving, cannot be allowed to stand.”

Would-be miner Twin Metals LLC contended that due diligence is being done.

“We firmly believe that the renewal of the leases was lawful and fully compliant with all environmental and other requirements,” Twin Metals spokeswoman Kathy Graul wrote in an email. “Any proposed mine project, like the one submitted by Twin Metals in late 2019, will be subject to thorough environmental review by federal, tribal and state governments and will include multiple opportunities for public participation.”

The group’s complaint follows a major win for Twin Metals and its parent company, Chilean mining conglomerate Antofagasta PLC. The project was saved from the grave in March when U.S. District Judge Trevor McFadden in Washington upheld the bureau’s 2019 reinstatement of the leases, which had been denied renewal in 2016, under the Administrative Procedures Act.

The mining project aims to extract copper, nickel and other valuable metals from the Duluth Complex, a geological formation which plays host to some of the world’s largest known mineral deposits.

Both it and another proposed mine by Twin Metals competitor PolyMet have drawn concern from environmental groups and businesses who serve tourists to the nearby Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The Boundary Waters draw over 150,000 visitors annually, according to estimates by state tourism agency Explore Minnesota.

The mining projects come with the risk of acid mine drainage into the wilderness, threatening aquatic ecosystems and the unspoiled-wilderness experience those tourists seek, according to critics.

“The Boundary Waters is perhaps the last place on earth that we should ever expose to a mining operation that will pollute pristine waters and harm the outdoor recreation economy that depends on a clean environment,” Scott Kovarovics, executive director of the Izaak Walton League of America, said in a press release. “The scale of the threat and the blatant disregard for science and meaningful public participation demands a response.”

Proponents point to 765 mining jobs Twin Metals has promised in the region, a shot in the arm for the region’s once-strong mineral extraction industry. Northern Minnesota’s Iron Range was a hub for iron ore mining from the end of the 19th century through 1984.

The region still exports taconite, a low-grade form of the ore, and some high-grade ore, but no longer approaches the economic heights of the Iron Range’s peak years.

The case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Carl Nichols, a 2019 Trump appointee. No hearings have yet been scheduled.

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