Minnesota Businesses Slam Wilderness Mining Leases

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Trump administration’s renewal of two expired mining leases in Northern Minnesota drew a federal lawsuit on the first day of summer from nine outdoor-recreation businesses who say the move threatens a pristine and iconic wilderness area.

The leases allow Twin Metals Minnesota, a subsidiary of Antofagasta PLC, to resume copper and nickel mining in Superior National Forest near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, a 1 million acre area known for its hiking trails and canoe routes that wind through 1,750 lakes.

The lawsuit claims that renewing the mining leases will damage the wilderness.

“Sulfide-ore copper mining would threaten to pollute clean water and damage the important forest habitat used by many types of wildlife,” according to the 37-page complaint.

“Sulfide-ore copper mining has a consistent record of devastating environmental harm, including contaminated waters, degraded forests, and unpredicted, catastrophic spills of toxic materials.”

Citing data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the complaint calls sulfide-ore copper mining “the leading generator of toxic waste in the nation,” and says the renewed mining activity harm the environment and the area’s outdoor-recreation economy.

The plaintiffs include a resort, outdoor equipment and recreation companies – including Piragis Northwoods – and the Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness, a conservation group working to protect the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Steve Piragis, who owns Piragis Northwoods Company, said water and noise pollution in the wilderness area would harm his business and repel his clients.

“They will stop using substantial areas of the boundary waters, including important entry points and major canoe routes,” Piragis said in a statement. “Others will cease to visit at all because it will no longer be the place they love and remember. It would not take long for the recreational economy we have worked so hard to develop for many decades in Ely to be severely affected.”

The defendants include the Department of Interior and the Bureau of Land Management. The Department of Justice declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Congress bestowed federal protections on the area in 1964 when it amended the Wilderness Act, which were expanded in 1978 to include regulation of mineral mining activities, which can only be authorized by the secretary of the interior pending approval by the agriculture secretary.

The Bureau of Land Management first issued the copper and nickel mineral leases at stake in 1966 but in 2016 – during the waning weeks of the Obama administration – the Bureau of Land Management denied Twin Metals’ third lease renewal request, finding that the site of a proposed mine would likely contaminate the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness with acid mine drainage. The lease expired on Dec. 15 that year, the day after the U.S. Forest Service withdrew its consent to renew the leases.

But on Dec. 22, 2017 principal deputy solicitor Daniel Jorjani issued a legal opinion that paved the way for the leases to be renewed and on May 2, the Department of the Interior formally reinstated the leases.

Twin Metals then announced plans to expand construction of hydrogeological wells, which the complaint says will require new roads and constant drilling expected to last until August 27.

The company has also moved to bar public access to some of the leased areas on Forest Service, according to the lawsuit.

Twin Metals said in a statement the company is reviewing the complaint.

“Twin Metals firmly believes there is no basis for a court to disturb the reinstatement of the leases, and will take appropriate steps to defend the government’s actions,” the statement said.

During a rally Wednesday in Duluth, Minn. President Trump expressed support for mining activities in the Superior National Forest and said his administration is moving to roll-back Obama administration efforts to expand protections from mining and other industry activities in the wilderness area.

“Under the previous administration, America’s rich, natural resources, of which your state has a lot, were put under lock and key, including thousands of acres in Superior National Forest,” Trump told the crowd.

Trump added that his administration would soon take steps to “carefully” restore mineral exploration in the Superior National Forest.

“And maybe, if it doesn’t pass muster, we won’t do it all,” Trump said. “But it is going to happen, I will tell you. It’s going to happen.”

The June 21 complaint alleges violation of the Administrative Procedure Act and claims the May 2 decision to renew the leases was unlawful.

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