On December 20, the Trump Administration’s U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) announced it will renew Chilean mining giant Antofagasta’s Twin Metals mining leases. These leases were terminated in 2016. It is contrary to our nation’s laws to renew lawfully terminated mineral leases. This action is intended to avoid America’s bedrock environmental laws to allow dangerous sulfide-ore copper mining on public lands next to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness for the benefit of a foreign mining company.
Since assuming power in 2017, the Trump Administration has been ignoring science, facts, and the will of the people by systematically stripping protections for the Boundary Waters in favor of Chilean mining giant, Antofagasta.
These federal mineral leases were terminated in 2016 when, after years of study and overwhelming public comment, the U.S. Forest Service concluded that copper mining under these leases posed an unacceptable risk of irreparable damage to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and to surrounding Superior National Forest lands and waters. The renewal is based on a legal opinion by former Koch strategist Daniel Jorjani, who has been acting as the top lawyer for the Department of Interior the past two years, despite never undergoing the required confirmation by the US Senate.
The Bureau of Land Management has prepared an inadequate and incomplete “study” of the leases. A 21-day public comment period has been opened, occurring inconveniently during the Holiday weeks and wraps up January 22, 2018.
How we got here.
In December 2016, the Obama Administration and its federal agencies announced that applications to renew Antofagasta’s Twin Metals mineral leases were denied and a proposed 20-year ban on copper mining in the Boundary Waters watershed would be considered. The Bureau of Land Management stated in its release, "Citing broad concerns from thousands of public comments and input about potential impacts of mining on the wilderness area’s watershed, fish and wildlife, and the nearly $45 million recreation economy, the agencies today took actions that denied an application for renewal of two hard rock mineral leases in the area, as well as initiated steps to withdraw key portions of the watershed from new mineral permits and leases.”
In January 2017, the Forest Service and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) launched an environmental review of the proposed 20-year ban on copper mining on national forest lands in the watershed of the Boundary Waters. This study was designed to analyze the environmental, economic, and social impacts of a ban and to consider the risk sulfide-ore copper mining posed to the region. The study called an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), is the process provided under federal law to guide a decision by the Secretary of the Interior on whether public lands should be off-limits to mining for twenty years. One year later, the Forest Service downgraded the withdrawal study from an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to an Environmental Assessment (EA). The EA was required to be completed by January 2019, when the Interior Secretary would make his decision.
On September 6, 2018, the U.S. Forest Service abruptly the EA. It claimed that although the nearly 21-month study disclosed no new science, it had reviewed numerous reports to reach the conclusion that the Superior National Forest lands under study should be opened to copper mining immediately. Since the abrupt cancellation, the Forest Service has refused to share these reports with the public and has even rebuffed requests from Congress. Even more, telling is that more than 55 strong science and economic reports directly applicable to the negative impacts of copper mining on the Boundary Waters ecosystem and economy were submitted to the Forest Service. The Forest Service’s claim of no new science is misleading at best. Just as the reports are being suppressed, all public access to the reading room for the EA has been shut down. These actions demonstrate an attempt to ignore the nation’s law that governs mining and to suppress the science and economics that would have supported one outcome: that only a 20-year ban on copper mining would protect the Boundary Waters and downstream lands and waters in the Superior National Forest, the Quetico Park, and Voyageurs National Park. The study became inconvenient for an administration determined to favor foreign mining companies over the welfare of local communities.
The Trump administration is also ignoring another law that protects the Boundary Waters from dangerous sulfide-ore copper mining. In Minnesota, the Forest Service has the right to say no to mining in the Superior National Forest. That right, based on statute, protects the unique canoe country ecosystem, which is unlike any other place in America, with its abundant clean water. The Trump administration reversed the Forest Service’s 2016 denial of consent to these mining leases and has informed the Forest Service that it cannot exercise the right to withhold consent.
Now, the BLM is renewing these terminated leases after only a narrow and clearly inadequate review of negative environmental, economic, and social impacts of dangerous sulfide-ore copper mining. It is providing only extremely limited opportunity for the public to engage and to raise concerns of the negative impacts of copper mining on the Wilderness and nearby lands, waters, and communities. The science developed during the two-year EA, canceled on September 6, 2018, is being withheld from the people, further inhibiting their ability to assess harm.
Here is the timeline of events:
December 15, 2016: U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which manages federal minerals on the Superior National Forest, notified Twin Metals that the company’s application for renewal of the mineral leases was denied.
December 15, 2016: U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Interior (parent agencies to the Forest Service and BLM) announced they would bar any new mineral leases or mineral exploration on 234,328 acres of national forest lands around the Boundary Waters for two years, in order to study a proposed 20-year mining ban as necessary to protect the Boundary Waters watershed from damage from sulfide-ore copper mining.
January 13, 2017: Forest Service announced the beginning of a comment period to determine the scope (i.e., what issues should be reviewed) of the environmental review.
May 25, 2017: Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue confirmed that the environmental impact study on banning sulfide-ore copper mining in the Boundary Waters watershed will proceed to completion and decisions would be based on facts and science.
Aug. 17, 2017: Forest Service received more than 125,000 public comments on the proposed withdrawal, with approximately 98% of the over 81,000 unique comments and 94% of the over 44,000 petition comments favoring withdrawal.
Dec. 22, 2017: Acting Principal Deputy Solicitor of the Department of the Interior Daniel Jorjani issued a legal opinion finding that BLM lacked discretion to deny Twin Metals’ lease renewal application
Jan. 26, 2018: Forest Service downgrades withdrawal study from an environmental impact statement to an environmental assessment and initiates a second public comment period. Nearly 56,000 comments were received, nearly all of which supported a 20-year ban.
May 2, 2018: The Department of the Interior and Bureau of Land Management reinstated two expired mineral leases and Twin Metals’ renewal application.
June 2018: Three lawsuits filed in federal district court in DC challenging the reinstatement decision.
Sept. 6, 2018: Secretary of the Department of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced in a press release that the Forest Service had cancelled the EA and would not complete the study of a 20-year mining ban. Instead, it announced that the Superior National Forest was open to sulfide-ore copper mining.
Many of the critically important science and economic studies submitted to the Forest Service are now posted at earthworks.org/BoundaryWaters.
5 Actions You Can Take Right Now
Right now is the most critical time for you to take action and to speak loudly for this quiet place. Here are a few other ways you can get involved: