Release: Biden administration starts process to ban copper mining next to the Boundary Waters

Oct 20, 2021
Jeremy Drucker



Biden administration starts process to ban copper mining next to the Boundary Waters 

U.S. Forest Service requests mineral withdrawal of federal public lands in the Rainy River Drainage Basin to complete process abruptly cancelled by the Trump administration

Biden administration freezes all new mining leases, prospecting permits, and other mining-related approvals for 24 months

(Ely, MN)--Today the Biden administration announced that it has filed an application for a 20-year ban on sulfide-ore copper mining on federal public lands in the watershed of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota. This process, called a mineral withdrawal, begins with a comprehensive study of the likely ecological, economic, environmental, recreational, and cultural impacts of sulfide-ore copper mining if it were permitted in the watershed of the Boundary Waters. The Trump administration cancelled a previous mineral withdrawal study 20 months into the 24-month study process, then hid the data it had gathered from the press, the public, and Congress. The Biden administration announcement today will result in a fully completed study and a possible 20 year ban on such mining. 

"Today's science-based decision is a significant win for Boundary Waters protection,"said Becky Rom, National Chair of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters. "You don't allow America's most toxic industry next to America’s most popular Wilderness. The Boundary Waters is a paradise of woods and water. It is an ecological marvel, a world-class outdoor destination, and an economic engine for hundreds of businesses and many thousands of people. 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."

The mineral withdrawal application triggers a twenty-four month freeze on all mining-related actions on the federal lands and minerals covered by the Superior National Forest mineral withdrawal study. Antofagasta’s Twin Metals has an application pending for a new federal mineral lease. In December 2018, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management concluded that an Antofagasta/ Twin Metals mine would not be economically feasible without this new third federal mineral lease. A decision by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland to order a 20-year mining ban, which would be based on the study announced today, would bar any new federal leases, prospecting permits, or mining approvals.

In 2016 the U.S. Forest Service concluded that sulfide-ore copper mining in the watershed of the Boundary Waters would pose an unacceptable risk of harm to the Wilderness and that any damage could not be mitigated or fixed. Because the U.S. Forest Service denied consent to renewal of two Twin Metals mineral leases, the leases terminated. In 2018 the Trump administration unlawfully reinstated the expired leases and subsequently renewed them.  The Biden administration is currently reviewing pending litigation on the lease reinstatement and renewals. 

The Boundary Waters is the most heavily-visited Wilderness Area in the United States, attracting more than 160,000 visitors annually from all over the world. It helps drive more than $900 million in annual economic activity and helps support over 17,000 jobs. A peer-reviewed independent study by Harvard University economists showed that protecting the Boundary Waters from sulfide-ore copper mining would result in dramatically more jobs and more income in the region over a 20-year period than if a Twin Metals mine were operating. 

Nearly seventy percent of Minnesotans support a ban on sulfide-ore copper mining near the Boundary Waters. During the public comment periods for the first mineral withdrawal process over 180,000 Americans voiced support for the proposed mining ban to protect the Boundary Waters. 

In April 2021, Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN) introduced legislation to permanently protect Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness from the threat of sulfide-ore copper mining. The Boundary Waters Wilderness Protection and Pollution Prevention Act permanently protects 234,328 acres of federal land and waters within the Superior National Forest from risky sulfide-ore copper mining, the same area that is covered by the mineral withdrawal. There is also state legislation to permanently protect the Wilderness and a lawsuit brought by Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness (the lead organization in Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters) challenging the state's mine siting rules near the Boundary Waters. 

What people are saying

Mark Dayton, former Minnesota Governor and US Senator 

“We inherited this pristine wilderness from previous generations of Minnesotans, who bequeathed it to us to benefit not only ourselves, but also our children, our grandchildren, and their children and grandchildren. Now it is our responsibility to protect this fragile ecosystem from those who would exploit it for their own selfish purposes….The BWCA is not a 20-year wilderness; the only acceptable goal is permanent protection from copper mining near the Boundary Waters.”

Al Franken, former US Senator, Minnesota

“I've been going to the Boundary Waters since I was a teenager and have returned throughout my life to experience its beauty, serenity, and walleyes. As a Senator, I was privileged to hear all sides of issues of importance to Minnesotans. I understand the desire and need for more economic activity on the Iron Range. But I have come to the conclusion that copper-nickel mining does not belong anywhere near this unbelievably precious wilderness area that is visited by almost a quarter million people a year. It is a treasure and one of the economic drivers of Northern Minnesota.” 

Sally Jewell, former Secretary of the Interior

“The Biden Administration and Congress can join the pantheon of this nation’s great conservationists. By prohibiting copper mining adjacent to the Wilderness and conserving this vital ecosystem and all the species it nurtures, our leaders can protect this precious and irreplaceable natural wonder not just for now, but for generations to follow.” 

Theodore Roosevelt IV

“It is irresponsible to jeopardize an irreplaceable resource for something readily available elsewhere. President Theodore Roosevelt, who created Superior National Forest in 1909, implored Americans to “cherish” the nation’s “natural wonders” as a “sacred heritage for your children and your children’s children.” By acting now, we will fulfill our generation's responsibilities to protect Minnesota's outdoor heritage of the Boundary Waters for the sake of all Americans today and tomorrow. Let's heed the call of the wilderness.”

Tom Tidwell, former Chief of the United States Forest Service of the Department of Agriculture

“The Boundary Waters is one of the most valuable natural landscapes on earth. It has sparkling clean water and attracts hundreds of thousands of wilderness travelers and tourists. The Boundary Waters is also a bedrock of sustainable economic support for hundreds of local businesses and thousands of employees. But an industrial mining district in the Boundary Waters watershed would forever change the landscape, undercut the wilderness character of the Boundary Waters, and continuously produce pollution that would flow directly into the Wilderness. There are much less risky places to mine, but there is only one Boundary Waters. This is why we need a permanent ban on mining in the headwaters.”

Professor Tadd M. Johnson, Esq., Bois Forte Tribal Elder, MN
“Indigenous peoples sought sustenance and spirituality from this place from time immemorial. On the outskirts of the Boundary Waters, and inside of this wilderness, my family lived and thrived for generations. This is a place of pristine air, clear water, tall pines, wildlife, ancient cliffs and adventure. Those who came before us had the wisdom to preserve it, and we must respect their wisdom. It must be preserved.”

Brenda Halter, former Supervisor, Superior National Forest
“The proposed Twin Metals mine is neither ecologically nor economically sustainable. Once the mine fails, there is simply no way to contain it without sacrificing the wilderness and the long-term economic sustainability that it supports. All of the science and all of our experience tell us that in this extremely valuable, water-rich and highly interconnected place, you simply cannot have both.”

Hans Cole, VP of Environmental Activism, Patagonia
"Bottom line, sulfide ore copper mining proposed on the edge of the Boundary Waters presents a deadly threat to everything that makes this area unique: it’s a wild place with world-class qualities, a beloved destination for fishing, hunting, camping, paddling and hiking, and a thriving local and regional outdoor recreation economy that relies on a pristine wilderness. The only way to ensure that our kids and future generations have the opportunities to experience what so many of us have enjoyed is this:  we must work together to protect the clean water, lakes and interconnected waterways of the Boundary Waters, forever."

Brady Robinson, Executive Director, The Conservation Alliance
“I grew up in Minnesota. Some of my earliest, formative outdoor adventures took place in the lakes and streams of the Boundary Waters. There is absolutely no place for a sulfide-ore copper mine anywhere near this special place, not now, not ever. It is our collective responsibility to ensure these lands and waters are left wild for future generations of humans and wildlife."

Steve Piragis owner of Piragis Northwoods Company located in Ely, MN
“What we need to do is think about what are the long-term implications of hard rock mining near the Boundary Waters. We’re not going to be able to bring it back so we have to be very careful about what kind of industries we allow at wilderness edge communities like Ely. Industrialization will change this place, change this town, change our wilderness and we have a chance to save this so let’s take that opportunity.”

Jason Zabokrtsky, Owner, Ely Outfitting Company in Ely MN
“The Boundary Waters is an economic engine that supports wilderness edge communities. Protecting this national treasure from risky sulfide ore copper mining is vital to the local communities and regional economies that depend on clean water, healthy forests and a pristine Boundary Waters Wilderness.”

Ann McNally, Girl Scouts Minnesota and Wisconsin Lakes and Pines
"The Boundary Waters is a perfect example of an accessible wilderness that allows Girl Scouts to discover the power of teamwork and their own strength. Girl Scouts finish canoe trips with a swagger to their step, an ability to creatively solve problems with people from different backgrounds, and  an ambition to tackle emerging challenges in our world. Protecting the Boundary Waters is vital to ensuring that future generations of Girl Scouts have the same formative opportunities."

Theresa Salus, REI Co-op Regional Experiences Manager
“Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) houses an expansive network of waterways and forest trails connected to more than 1,000 local lakes. The area is a national treasure that is a point of pride for Minnesotans and a critical region for tribal communities to harvest their rice, fish, and exercise their treaty rights. Every year, the BWCA draws thousands of visitors who come to marvel at its pristine waters and enjoy time outside as they camp, canoe, and engage in all of the outdoor recreation opportunities this special place provides. Ensuring that every person can enjoy the Boundary Waters requires us to protect it from mining or other harmful activities, as we have a responsibility to future generations to preserve this irreplaceable landscape.” 

Peter Paine, Jr., Board Member and Former Chair of the Adirondack Nature Conservancy and Adirondack Land Trust
"I have been coming to the BWCA for over 25 years and was greatly concerned about the Twin Metals proposal to open a copper mine on the South Kawishiwi River. The Trump administration, rejecting scientific studies demonstrating there was no way the leachate could be successfully contained for centuries, pushed ahead with this project in spite of strong local opposition. It is a great relief that the Biden administration appears to be taking steps to cancel the project which should lead to permanent protection for the BWCA watershed.”

Jack Lee, Executive Director - Voyageur Outward Bound School
"Voyageur Outward Bound School’s mission is critically tied to the health of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Since 1964, the Boundary Waters has been our classroom and where we serve our students. Any pollution that could threaten these waterways or land threaten our mission to change lives by using the wilderness to provide unparalleled opportunities for personal growth, self-reliance, confidence, teamwork and compassion"

Duane Behrens, former union miner
"My primary concern with Twin Metals' proposed mining plan is one of financial responsibility. These operations seem to have an unbroken record of contaminating their environment, often catastrophically. Twin Metals is owned by Antofagasta. But I’ve seen nothing to indicate that that corporation’s officers and major stockholders are tied to the project financially. If “Twin Metals” is solely responsible for the eventual contamination that always follows in the wake of these things, who is responsible for the costs of cleanup? What is to stop Twin Metals from simply going bankrupt and leaving those costs to the taxpayers? That's what happened at the mines I was employed at in Wyoming, and I'm very afraid the same thing is beginning to play out in the Boundary Waters."

James Edward Mills, outdoors writer and founder of The Joy Trip Project
“Copper/nickel mining in the communities around the Boundary Waters Canoe Area would be an ecological disaster. Damaging the surrounding land and water resources would put at risk the physical health and well being of local residents as well as the livelihood of retailers, outfitters and restaurateurs who rely on the economic engine of the most popular wilderness area in America. I am very excited to know that the Biden Administration has made natural resource conservation a priority and I am grateful to the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters for pressing the cause of environmental protection.“

Amy and Dave Freeman, wilderness adventurers, advocates, and authors of A Year in the Wilderness: Bearing Witness in the Boundary Waters
"In the Boundary Waters, the land and water speak. The land and water speak through the call of a loon echoing across a still lake, the muffled fall of snowflakes, the metamorphosis of dragonflies, and the scent of wild rice. Actions show if you have listened to the land and the water. Thank you to the leaders who have heeded their plea and earned their gratitude, and the gratitude of future generations who will visit the Boundary Waters and further strengthen the connection humans have with the land and the water. “

Lloyd Vogel, Enlightened Equipment, Winona MN
“The Boundary Waters is a unique and wildly important space that plays an exceptionally defining role in the identity, community and culture of Minnesotan life. As a vast wilderness space, it plays a pivotal role in the environmental health of our region. As a recreational area, it provides thousands of people (from all over the world) with immersive and transformative connections to the natural world. As businesses, voters, and elected officials, there is no more important charge than protecting wilderness spaces for future generations.”

Dave and Nancy Seaton, Hungry Jack Outfitters, Gunflint Trail MN
“Clean water is more valuable than copper.  Healthy forests are more valuable than nickel.  Accessible wilderness is more valuable to the world's citizens than corporate profit. Last I checked, they aren't making any more wilderness.”

Rob Coughlin, Granite Gear Partner and GM, Two Harbors MN
“The magic of the The Boundary Waters Canoe Area is almost indescribable to those who have not visited. The network of pristine lakes, streams, trails and surrounding forest teems with wildlife. They tell stories of the past and the indigenous peoples who called this area their home.  The threat of sulfide-ore copper mining on the edge of this wilderness is unimaginable.  This toxic mining method’s history speaks for itself.  It’s not simply a possibility that the byproducts produced by sulfide-ore copper will leach into the water supply.  It’s guaranteed.  If we don’t keep fighting to protect this unmatched and irreplaceable national treasure, we will have failed our future generations.”

Bear Paulsen, Northstar Canoes, Princeton, MN
“Minnesota is the land of sky blue waters and 10,000 lakes. The lakes of the BWCA epitomize Minnesota. They are the state’s identity. The state bird, fish, flower, tree, and grain all thrive in the BWCA. When Minnesota markets itself as a tourist destination the BWCA is always prominently featured. The BWCA is Minnesota’s most wonderful and valuable asset. It must remain untrammeled and pure for future generations to love.”

Todd Randall, Owner/Craftsman, Sanborn Canoe Co., Winona MN
“Trips to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness have played a pivotal role in   my life. Apart from the BWCA, Sanborn Canoe doesn't exist. Sanborn was born out of long days on the water in a canoe (or a hammock) and fireside chats reaching deep into the night.  Time slows in the wilderness, creating space for big dreams and the inspiration for the next adventure. Every time I return to the BWCA, I find a deeper connection to the woods and the waters and to myself and the life that surrounds us. This connection is lost in the constant hurry of modern life. It would be unforgivable to destroy yet another sacred place to simply earn another buck.”

Mike Cichanowski, Wenonah Canoe
“This decision is a big deal for the Paddlesports industry.  We all depend on a healthy Boundary Waters in our business.  Copper is not in short supply so why even consider risking the world’s best canoe country.  Most of the canoes we make end up at some point in the Boundary Waters.  We need it clean for us to prosper here in Winona.”