DULUTH -- The Biden administration has hit pause on any new copper-nickel mining leases near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness for two years as it studies the impact of that type of mining. The study could lead to a 20-year ban on that type of mining and mining activity in the Rainy River Watershed.
The U.S. Interior and Agriculture departments announced Wednesday, Oct. 20, 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. Only congress can pass a permanent withdrawal.
Environmental groups celebrated the decision, which mirrors a decision made in the final days of the Obama administration that the Trump administration later reversed. Pro-mining groups expressed fear it would kill future economic development and potential jobs.
The administration said the move was made to "protect" the BWCAW and its watershed, which it called a "unique natural wonder and one of the jewels of the National Wilderness Preservation System."
"In response to broad concerns about potential impacts of mining on the wilderness area’s watershed, fish and wildlife, tribal trust and treaty rights, and the nearly $100 million annual local recreation economy, the administration is initiating consideration of a 20-year withdrawal of key portions of the national forest lands from disposition under the mineral and geothermal leasing laws, which would temporarily prohibit the issuance of new prospecting permits and leases in the area," the administration said in a news release.
Wednesday's decision stems from an executive order signed by President Joe Biden on his first day in office directing federal agencies to review all actions taken during the Trump administration that may conflict with his administration's goal “to listen to the science; to improve public health and protect our environment; to ensure access to clean air and water” and other criteria.
The move does not immediately affect the existing leases for Twin Metals, which will expire in 2029. The company does have a pending application for additional federal leases. The company submitted plans in December 2019 for an underground mine, processing plant and dry-stacked tailings storage facility on the edge of Birch Lake near Ely. Birch Lake flows into the Kawishiwi River, which then flows into the BWCAW. Opponents of Twin Metals fear toxic runoff from the mine would damage the downstream wilderness area.
Opponents of Twin Metals and copper-nickel mining in the Rainy River Watershed celebrated Wednesday's announcement, calling it "a significant win for Boundary Waters protection," but urged further action targeting Twin Metals.
"This is a great first step on the pathway to permanent protection. The appropriate next step for the administration is to revoke the two Twin Metals leases that the Trump administration unlawfully reinstated," Becky Rom, national chair of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, said in a statement.
The Trump administration in 2017 reinstated Twin Metals' mineral leases, reversing a decision made in the final days of the Obama administration that rescinded the mining company's federal mineral leases over concern it would pollute the BWCAW if it ever opened a mine in the same watershed.
The reinstatement has been upheld in the federal court system.
Twin Metals spokesperson Kathy Graul said the company remains committed to developing its planned mine.
“Twin Metals Minnesota is deeply disappointed with the federal government’s action to initiate a mineral withdrawal study yet again on nearly 230,000 acres of land in northeast Minnesota, which sits on top of the world’s largest known undeveloped copper-nickel deposit," Graul said in an email for this story. "We are working to determine the best path forward to continue advancing our proposed world-class underground copper, nickel, cobalt and platinum group metals mine."
Supporters of the copper-nickel mining industry expressed concern.
"The minerals from the Twin Metals mine — copper, nickel, cobalt, platinum group metals — are critical to propel our country’s transition to a low-carbon future. Failure to encourage this project undermines the Biden administration’s commitments to address the climate crisis, shore up domestic supply chains and bolster American jobs," Brian Hanson, chair of Jobs for Minnesotans, said in a statement. "This action short-circuits a science-based environmental review and permitting process that was designed to protect the environment. It is simply wrong."
Both Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who oversees the Forest Service, and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, who oversees the Bureau of Land Management, have long opposed mining in the Rainy River Watershed. Their views were shared again Wednesday in the joint news release.
“The Boundary Waters area is an irreplaceable natural resource renowned for high-quality fishing, wildlife viewing, and recreational opportunities,” Vilsack said in the release. “I have asked the Forest Service to work with the Bureau of Land Management to complete a careful environmental analysis and engage the public on whether future mining should be authorized on any federal land adjacent to this spectacular and unique wilderness resource.”
“A place like the Boundary Waters should be enjoyed by and protected for everyone, not only today but for future generations,” Haaland said in the release. “Today, the Biden Administration is taking an important and sensible step to ensure that we have all the science and the public input necessary to make informed decisions about how mining activities may impact this special place.”
Biden’s position, however, had been unclear. As a presidential candidate, he privately told mining companies he wanted to increase domestic production of copper, nickel and other metal for use in electric cars and solar panels, Reuters reported last year.
In 2016, under the Obama administration and Vilsack, the Forest Service withheld consent to the renewal of two of Twin Metals' hard-rock mineral leases, allowing the Interior's Bureau of Land Management to reject the lease renewal application.
At the same time, the two agencies moved to exclude 234,000 acres of the Superior National Forest south and west of the BWCAW from any future mining permits, most within the Rainy River Watershed but outside the BWCAW, calling it a “timeout” to see if copper mining would be appropriate in any part of the area. If officials determined it wasn’t appropriate, the mining could have been banned in the area for up to 20 years.
The Trump administration in 2018 reversed both decisions, reinstating Twin Metals’ leases and ending the mineral withdrawal and accompanying environmental study. The administration in 2019 then renewed the leases for 10 more years, giving Twin Metals access to national forest land on which to search for minerals and prepare to develop a mining project.