Agreement Reached on Mining Exploration Permits Near Boundary Waters Wilderness
Five things to know about the May 10th announcement:
Five things to know about the May 10th announcement:
Conservation groups Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness (NMW), Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), and The Wilderness Society (TWS) sued three federal agencies in 2020, challenging the Trump administration’s extension of 13 prospecting permits held by Twin Metals Minnesota (TMM) on federal lands just outside the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (Boundary Waters).
On May 10, 2021, NMW, CBD, and TWS settled the lawsuit in an agreement that will require the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service to revisit their decisions to extend the 13 prospecting permits. The agencies agreed to prepare an environmental review document called an EA (environmental assessment) and consult with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service about the potential impact on threatened and endangered species. The BLM has the authority to reverse the extension decision for the 13 permits. Likewise, the U.S. Forest Service has the authority to reverse its consent to the permit extensions. Thus, the EA and ESA consultation are extremely important steps in ensuring science based decision making with respect to the permits.
The 13 prospecting permits cover 22 square miles and are located along miles of shoreline of Birch Lake, miles of lands on the border of the Boundary Waters, and rivers and streams flowing into Birch Lake and the Boundary Waters.
The Center for Biological Diversity represented Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness, The Wilderness Society and itself in the lawsuit.
The settlement agreement also assures that there will be no surface-disturbing activities by the Chilean-owned Twin Metals, pending the outcome of the upcoming environmental review and Endangered Species Act consultation and the decisions by the agencies on the permits.
Three conservation groups and the federal agencies they sued -- the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) -- signed a settlement agreement on May 10, 2021, that requires the BLM and the USFS to revisit their decisions to renew 13 “prospecting permits.” Prospecting permits are granted by the BLM to mining companies to explore federal lands for possible minerals (e.g., copper, nickel) in underground deposits. The USFS must consent to the issuance of permits in t the Superior National Forest. The permits could have allowed Antofagasta’s Twin Metals Minnesota to significantly expand its proposed sulfide-ore copper mine at the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northeastern Minnesota.
The groups that filed the lawsuit in 2020 included the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), The Wilderness Society (TWS) and Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness (NMW, the leading organization for the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters). The lawsuit challenged BLM’s four-year extension of the prospecting permits in 2020. To settle the lawsuit, the BLM has agreed to provide for public comment, conduct an analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), consult with the U.S.Fish and Wildlife Service about the plan’s potential harm to endangered species, and then issue its decision.The USFS will also be issuing a new consent decision. The BLM also agreed to prohibit any ground-disturbing activities while it reconsiders its decision.
“After the horrendous years of the Trump administration, the government is thankfully returning to rational, science-based decision making,” said Marc Fink, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “A thorough scientific analysis of these permits and Twin Metals’ related proposals will show that a massive copper-sulfide mine just upstream from the spectacular Boundary Waters wilderness is simply too great a risk to those intact aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. We’re confident this agreement will help lead to preserving this beloved place for future generations.”
These prospecting permits, along with the company’s mineral leases, are part of Twin Metals’ attempt to create a toxic mining district on the Superior National Forest, just upstream from the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Between the company’s leases and permits, a roughly 30-square-mile area is at stake, including rivers, lakes, wetlands and forest that provide critically important habitat for wildlife like moose, wolves and Canada lynx.
“We are fundamentally opposed to the development of a toxic mining district in the watershed of the Boundary Waters,” said Tom Landwehr, executive director of Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness. “As determined by the US Forest Service in 2016 this type of mining is not compatible with retaining the pure and wild ecosystem of the area. This agreement is a step in the right direction in returning to good governance and fact-based government decision-making.”
Other legal challenges to the reinstatement and renewal of Twin Metals’ mineral leases have been put on hold while the Biden administration determines how to ensure protection for the Boundary Waters. U.S. Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.) recently called on the administration to withdraw this area from mining while it conducts a comprehensive, science-based analysis of whether copper-sulfide ore can be safely mined in this watershed. In April U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) introduced a bill (HR 2794) to permanently protect the watershed from copper mining.
“Today’s agreement is an important step in restoring proper, lawful process and informed decision-making concerning proposed copper mining on the doorstep of the Boundary Waters,” said Alison Flint, senior legal director at The Wilderness Society. “The Biden administration has a lot of work ahead to repair the damage of the last four years and must do what is necessary to protect this irreplaceable resource. We’re confident that the science will show this landscape is too precious and vulnerable for this type of mining.”
Under the agreement, the BLM will conduct a review under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of the potential harms from extending prospecting permits in this area, within the context of the related mineral leases and Twin Metals’ mine proposal. After the required environmental analysis and endangered species consultation, the Forest Service will have the authority to not consent to the permit extensions and the BLM, as regulator of the mineral estate, will have the authority to cancel them, should it choose to do so.
The 13 prospecting permits would have allowed Twin Metals to drill holes, build roads and do other mining exploratory work throughout more than 15,000 acres of Superior National Forest (more than 22 square miles of land). The permits would greatly expand upon the location where Twin Metals has proposed a copper mine and waste piles just upstream from the Boundary Waters’ protected public lands and waterways. Twin Metals’ mining proposal would cause severe environmental damage to the region’s forests, lakes, rivers and wetlands that lie between Birch Lake and the edge of the Boundary Waters. The Boundary Waters is America’s most-visited wilderness area.
The agreement settles the lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., by the Center for Biological Diversity, Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness and The Wilderness Society. The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.
Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness is the founder and lead organization for Save The Boundary Waters, a campaign to permanently protect the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and keep proposed sulfide-ore copper mines out of its wilderness edge.
The Wilderness Society, founded in 1935, is the leading conservation organization working to protect wilderness and inspire Americans to care for our wild places. With more than one million members and supporters, The Wilderness Society has led the effort to permanently protect 111 million acres of wilderness and to ensure sound management of our shared national lands.