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Biden administration cancels Twin Metals leases

Last year, the administration initiated a mineral withdrawal for the same watershed as the Boundary Waters.

File: Kawishiwi River in BWCAW
Canoeists paddle a quiet stretch of the Kawishiwi River near Ely on a day in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Sam Cook / 2002 file / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — The Biden administration has canceled two federal mineral leases for Twin Metals, dealing another blow to the proposed underground copper-nickel mine near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

The leases, first issued in 1966, were rescinded in the final days of the Obama administration in 2016 over concern the mine would pollute the BWCAW if it were to ever open in the same watershed. The Trump administration then reinstated the leases in 2017 , and moved to renew the leases in 2018 . The 10-year leases were then formally renewed in May 2019 .

Ann Marie Bledsoe Downes, acting deputy solicitor of Indian affairs for the Department of Interior, wrote in a memorandum Wednesday that the 2019 lease renewal by the Trump administration violated Bureau of Land Management regulations and that the agency prepared an "inadequate (National Environmental Policy Act) analysis of the renewal decision."

"The (Bureau of Land Management) did not request nor obtain the Forest Service’s consent before issuing the lease renewals. The renewals were made with new, customized lease terms designed specifically for Twin Metals and that departed from and altered the BLM’s standard lease form and term," she wrote.

In a news release Wednesday, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said the leases were "improperly renewed."

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"We must be consistent in how we apply lease terms to ensure that no lessee receives special treatment,” Haaland said.

Twin Metals, which has submitted plans for an underground mine, processing plant and dry-stacked tailings storage facility on the edge of Birch Lake near Ely, said the decision was "disappointing, but not surprising given the series of actions the administration has taken to try and shut the door on copper-nickel mining in northeast Minnesota" and vowed to challenge the decision.

"This is not about law; this is a political action intended to stop the Twin Metals project without conducting the environmental review prescribed in law," Twin Metals spokesperson Kathy Graul said in a statement.

Twin Metals is a subsidiary of Chilean mining giant Antofagasta.

twin metals Nova.jpg

Birch Lake flows into the Kawishiwi River, which then flows into the BWCAW, and mine opponents fear the mine would send pollution into the wilderness.

Environmental groups celebrated the administration's decision.

"Today is a major win for Boundary Waters protection," Becky Rom, national chair of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, said in a news release.

"It is heartening to have an administration making decisions with integrity. Twin Metals leases should never have been reinstated in the first place, and this announcement should stop the Twin Metals mine threat," Rom said.

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The U.S. Interior and Agriculture departments in October announced they would not allow new federal mineral leases within 225,500 acres of the Rainy River Watershed, which is shared with the BWCAW for two years with the possibility of extending it to a 20-year withdrawal , or ban. The next day, the Interior's Bureau of Land Management said it would be denying an application for a third federal mineral lease and a batch of prospecting permits.

Separate from the federal process, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources had been reviewing the mine since the company submitted its plans in late 2019.

For more than two years the project was in the scoping phase — the first step in the project's state environmental review and permitting process. Scoping helps the DNR determine what to study, what information it needs from the company and what alternatives exist before it assembles an environmental impact statement for the project.

“Today’s federal action raises significant questions about the feasibility of Twin Metals’ project as proposed,” the agency said in a statement Wednesday afternoon. “The DNR will need to carefully and comprehensively consider what this development means for the state.”

On Wednesday, Gov. Tim Walz told reporters at a public safety press conference that he had yet to review the decision.

“The Boundary Waters holds a very special place for me, mainly of all the trips I took up there,” Walz said. “And it’s where my little brother was killed while canoeing.”

The governor’s brother, Craig Walz, was killed June 19, 2016 — Father’s Day — when a tree fell during a strong storm, killing him and injuring his 14-year-old son .

Unlike his predecessor, Gov. Mark Dayton , also a Democrat, Walz took no action to oppose Twin Metals as governor, but Walz told the News Tribune in 2019 that he felt Twin Metals “should back off. I think they should take a hard look at this."

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twin metals diagram.jpg
Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune

Wednesday's decision drew the scorn of U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber, R-Minn., who accused President Joe Biden of filling his cabinet with "the most extreme anti-mining activists."

“The Biden Administration’s announcement today canceling these long-standing mineral leases will have devastating impacts on northern Minnesota and our nation," the congressman from Hermantown said.

The Biden administration, including Haaland , have signaled support for mining minerals needed for electric vehicles and critical minerals domestically. Biden has also said the administration would look abroad for minerals.

But U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, DFL-Minn., who has spearheaded the ban of mining near the BWCAW, called the decision "monumental."

“The Boundary Waters is a national treasure that belongs to all Americans, and I am absolutely committed to ensuring its watershed will be permanently protected," the congresswoman from St. Paul said in a news release. "Some places are simply too special to mine, and it is our obligation to ensure these unique and valuable lands and waters remain intact for generations to come.”

This story was updated several times with quotes from officials and additional information. The final version was published at 4:37 p.m. Jan. 26. The initial version was posted at 11:55 a.m. Jan. 26.

Jimmy Lovrien covers energy, mining and the 8th Congressional District for the Duluth News Tribune. He can be reached at jlovrien@duluthnews.com or 218-723-5332.
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