“Critical Minerals” Offers Poor Justification for the Twin Metals Mine.
Over the past several years, mining interests and President Trump’s Administration have misused the concept of “critical minerals” as a scare tactic partly to justify the rolling-back of clean water protections and the gutting of longstanding environmental review rules. See, e.g., Sections 3 (a, b, and d) and 4 (b) in the Dec. 20, 2017 Executive Order 13817 “A Federal Strategy to Ensure Secure and Reliable Supplies of Critical Minerals,” instructing federal agencies to create a list of minerals of critical importance to the economic and national security of the United States. The Administration’s argument can be refined to something like this: 1) the U.S. relies on imports to obtain supplies of key minerals; 2) import reliance leaves the U.S. vulnerable to having its mineral supplies cut off; 3) mining more at home will free us from our reliance.
Yet upon inspection there are serious flaws in how the industry and Administration use the concept of critical minerals. The most-promoted solution by the mining industry and its mouthpieces -- more mines (in more sensitive places) -- has been grossly oversold. In addition, the Administration’s actions to advance one such mine -- the Chilean-owned Twin Metals Mine proposal in northeastern Minnesota -- undercut the Administration’s own critical minerals case for the mine. These flaws and inconsistencies are explained below.
1. Import reliance does not equal import vulnerability.
In its June 4, 2019 “Strategy to Ensure Secure and Reliable Supplies of Critical Minerals, the Department of the Interior correctly notes that the U.S. imports 100% of certain minerals it has classed as critical. Interior errs, however, in defining import reliance as a problem and a vulnerability. For example, Canada is a leading supplier of critical minerals to the United States. This puts U.S. national security at risk only if we expect imminent hostilities from our northern neighbor. The U.S. imports other minerals on the list from Mexico, Belgium, India, Germany, South Africa, the United Kingdom, Australia, Austria, Estonia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, and Rwanda. In short, the U.S. can and does source important minerals from a host of trading partners - many of them long-time allies. Our allies and trading partner options are a source of strength and security.
2. For many of the listed critical minerals, the industry imports because the metals are produced more cheaply overseas.
Many of the 35 identified critical minerals are not mined alone, but are produced in significant quantities in the as byproducts of hardrock gold, copper, and lead mining operations. Call them “byproduct critical minerals,” or simply “byproducts.” The U.S. has no shortage of gold, copper, and lead-producing mines, and these mines produce metal concentrates that must be processed in a smelter and then further refined to produce pure streams of distinct metals.
The U.S. Geological Survey explains that, “the recovery of these byproducts typically is low compared to the total amount of material that was made available from mining, and recovery facility capacity poses a greater restriction on supply than geologic availability.” The copper, gold, and lead concentrates shipped to smelters contain lots of critical minerals such as arsenic, antimony, bismuth, cobalt, tellurium, and others, but the smelters discard these byproduct minerals as impurities and waste products. The smelters do not invest to fully recover these “byproduct critical minerals,” simply because it would cost more to produce them than the smelter/refiner could make in selling them. In short, a new mine [the Twin Metals Mine] won’t solve this problem, and therefore this set of critical minerals should not be used by the Administration as an excuse for promoting risky mines in sensitive places, or for gutting environmental laws. Rather, a production credit (if that’s desired) or a run-of-the-mill supply crunch would cause prices to rise, and the market to respond accordingly.
That’s exactly what happened in the rare case of an actual constraint on trade in rare earth elements. In 2010 when China attempted to corner the market for the rare earth elements by restricting exports, the market reacted by raising rare earth element prices (the WTO also intervened, but the metals market achieved results more promptly). As a result, additional mines, some of which had been on long-term “care and maintenance” since the cheaper producers in China had undercut their prices years earlier, came back into production. The Mountain Pass rare earth elements mine in California is the prime example.
In addition, if the real concern short-term interruptions such as might occur between the start of a restriction on trade and a resumption in supply from either domestic producers or replacement trade from allied countries, the U.S. has in the past and could in the future rely on domestic strategic stockpiles of select minerals. Particularly when overseas mines are lower-cost suppliers than domestic sources of potentially critical minerals, it makes sense for the federal government (Dept. of Defense, Dept. of Commerce, or U.S. Geological Survey) to make steady additions to our domestically-based strategic stockpiles.
3. Even if it were ever built, the TMM mine would meet less than 4% of the U.S. annual demand for cobalt, and as U.S. consumption rises, that percentage would decline; the U.S. could sacrifice water and air quality in the Boundary Waters, and still need to import > 96% of its cobalt needs.
The Trump Administration has promoted the Twin Metals Minnesota copper-nickel mine (TMM) as a way to “reduce the vulnerability to disruption of critical mineral supplies,” even though copper and nickel are not critical minerals. The minerals at issue are the very small amounts of platinum, palladium, and cobalt that could be produced by a TMM mine.
It is not wise to get hung-up on platinum and palladium from a mine that might come into production 14 years from now. Both palladium and platinum are heavily used in the manufacture of catalytic converters, which are not found on electric vehicles. Gasoline vehicles are expected to be in steep decline 2035, which is likely the earliest a TMM mine might possibly come online. The advent of price parity between electric and gasoline cars, after all, is expected by 2025, if not sooner, which means long-term demand (and prices) for Pt and Pd will likely decline. That leaves cobalt to consider.
Proponents of the TMM like to talk about cobalt, of which the U.S. has almost no domestic sources. But TMM will produce very small quantities of cobalt, as a byproduct mainly from the smelting/refining of its nickel concentrates. Cobalt is not present in sufficient quantities at TMM to make much of a dent in the U.S.’s growing appetite for the metal. For example, the U.S. apparent annual consumption of cobalt in 2019 was 12,400 metric tons. In comparison, TMM’s average cobalt production over 25 years might be as much as 460 metric tons per year, meaning that at some point, many years from now, TMM could supply only 3.7% of the U.S. yearly consumption in 2019.
Thus, under the TMM proponents’ plan, the U.S. would risk the permanent pollution of the Boundary Waters and still be reliant upon imports and other mines for 96.3% of its cobalt consumption. Who but the mining company and its Chilean billionaire owners could possibly think of this as a good bargain?
Moreover, the focus even on that tiny supply of cobalt presumes that it would be mined, smelted, and refined and made available in the U.S., which turns out is a false assumption.
4. Critical minerals from the Twin Metals mine would go to China, not the U.S.
Critical minerals from a TMM mine would be sent overseas, most likely to China. This is true for two reasons. First, the U.S. already produces more copper and nickel concentrates than it has capacity to smelt. Thus, the TMM mine, or indeed any new copper-nickel mine, would be sent for smelting overseas.
The result of initial mining extraction is a mineral concentrate that needs to be smelted and refined in order to produce pure stocks of copper, nickel, and other metals from which manufactures create end products. There are only three active copper smelters located and still operating in the U.S., and these are vertically-integrated, meaning that the companies that own them also own their own copper mines, which supply the smelters with enough concentrates to keep them running at or near capacity. In addition, there are zero (0!) nickel smelters in the U.S. Accordingly, any new copper-nickel mine (such as TMM) will certainly send its copper and nickel concentrates out of the country for smelting, most likely to China, Japan or South Korea. Since it is owned by Antofagasta PLC, a TMM mine would likely send its concentrates to China for smelting/refining, as Antofagasta does.
In short, a TMM mine would not make America great. It would produce very little critical minerals, and it would send American critical minerals to China or other overseas countries with ample and cheap smelting capacity.
The second reason why any critical minerals from a TMM mine could be shipped overseas to fuel China’s economy is a Trump Administration decision in 2019. The old version of the federal mineral leases held by TMM contained a provision requiring the leaseholder, if it shipped concentrates overseas for smelting, to return an equivalent amount of refined metal to the U.S. In 2019, however, the Department of the Interior removed that provision when it renewed the leases. By removing that key provision from TMM’s federal mineral leases, the Trump Administration aided the movement of critical minerals out of the United States.
If "critical minerals" were anything more than a fig-leaf for the Administration’s determination to gut environmental protections, gut NEPA, and force risky mines into some of the most sensitive and beloved public lands in America, then the Trump Administration would have kept in place the “return to U.S.” provision in the federal mineral leases. Now, however, Antofagasta PLC has neither the obligation nor the incentive to bring the refined metals back.
To summarize, “critical minerals” as a concept is a poor justification for the TMM mine:
the U.S. has many trading partners, including long-time allies, with whom we trade for critical minerals. Those trading networks are a source of U.S. strength.
Many of the minerals that are identified as critical minerals are in fact produced in sufficient supply in copper, nickel, lead, and gold concentrates, but are discarded as waste material and not recovered during smelting/refining because the costs of recovery exceed the sale price at current prices; hence the issue is one of lower-cost producers overseas, as opposed to domestic lack of supply from existing mines.
Even in the case of cobalt, the best example of a critical mineral that the TMM mine can offer, pushing the TMM mine would meet less than 4% of domestic demand, and dropping.
And the TMM mine, if it were ever built, would supply China with critical minerals, not the U.S., because the U.S. has no nickel smelters, its three copper smelters are all fully-subscribed, and furthermore because the Trump Administration changed the terms of the federal mineral leases needed by TMM, so that TMM no longer has to bring back to the U.S. any of the metals it sends overseas for processing.
Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness, the leader of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, and nine northeastern Minnesota businesses sued in federal court to challenge the unlawful reinstatement of mineral leases that had been terminated in 2016. Four conservation groups later filed similar lawsuits, and the cases were consolidated.
This decision is a blow to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, our nation’s most visited Wilderness Area. It allows the Trump Administration to continue its reckless march toward authorizing an industrial mining complex that will replace a legacy of conservation and recreation with pollution and environmental degradation. The Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters will fight this bad idea - and Judge McFadden’s decision - every step of the way.
Judge Trevor N. McFadden decided to give deference to the Department of the Interior’s decision to reverse its 2016 position. He concluded that the Department’s actions were not arbitrary and capricious and not “‘a guise for changing previous decisions’ based on policy preferences.”
We strongly disagree. We believe the record clearly shows that the Trump administration reversal was a political decision to benefit Antofagasta. Our legal team’s request to introduce documents from the Department of Interior that demonstrated that the Department’s actions were motivated by politics and Trump Administration policy changes, not the rule of law or science, was denied.
Moreover, the decision ignores the plain language of the mineral leases in question, the administrative record from the Department of the Interior and its agency, the Bureau of Land Management, and the consistent interpretation and application of these leases over the past five decades. Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness and its nine business partners intend to appeal Judge McFadden’s decision to the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
“This decision failed to recognize the clear, plain language of the leases and twisted itself into knots to justify the predetermined policy decision of the Trump Administration to sell out America’s most popular Wilderness to a Chilean billionaire who also happens to be the landlord of Ivanka Trump." - Executive Director, Tom Landwehr
We need your help to bring this to the Court of Appeals. Help continue our advocacy for the protection and preservation of the Boundary Waters. We will have more information to share as we learn more and dig in, but please help us take this fight to the next level with a donation today.
History of the leases:
Twin Metals Minnesota’s mineral leases were originally terminated by the Obama Administration in December 2016. At the end of a three-year review and a public comment period that included two heavily-attended public meetings, the Forest Service concluded that this was the wrong location for a risky copper mine. Former Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell stated, “A regionally-untested copper-nickel sulfide ore mine within the same watershed as the BWCAW might cause serious and irreparable harm to this unique, iconic, and irreplaceable wilderness area.”
This 2016 decision was reversed on May 2, 2018 by the Trump Administration, which unlawfully reinstated Twin Metals’ expired minerals leases. Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness (NMW), the lead organization of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, and nine Minnesota outdoor recreation businesses challenged the unlawful reinstatement of federal mineral leases by the Trump administration by filing a lawsuit in federal court in June 2018. Two additional lawsuits were subsequently filed by four conservation groups. After the three lawsuits were consolidated into a single case, and Twin Metals intervened on the side of the Trump Administration.
The nine plaintiffs in the lawsuit are Voyageur Outward Bound School, Piragis Northwoods Company, Ely Outfitting Company, Hungry Jack Outfitters, Sawbill Outfitters, River Point Resort and Outfitting Company, Northstar Canoe, Wenonah Canoe, and Women’s Wilderness Discovery.
On Friday, December 20, 2019, NMW’s pro bono lawyers at Morrison & Foerster presented the case for NMW, nine businesses, and four conservation groups before US District Court Judge Trevor McFadden. National Chair Becky Rom and Matt Norton, Policy and Science Director for the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, and many of our supporters and partners attended the oral arguments.
Judge McFadden unfortunately ruled in favor of the Department of the Interior and Twin Metals this week, and upheld the Trump Administration reversal of Twin Metals lease termination. We are disappointed in the decision and do not agree with it.
What happens next:
We will continue our legal challenge to the unlawfully reinstated mineral leases by filing an appeal of this decision to the U. S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
Twin Metals Minnesota's proposed processing facility and tailings basin site.
If one of the world’s largest foreign mining companies shakes your hand and says it wants to do you a huge favor, you’d better count your fingers.
On July 18, 2019 Antofagasta’s Twin Metals, which proposes to build a sulfide-ore copper mine next to the Boundary Waters – put out a press release. Let’s be clear about what Twin Metals’ announcement really is: a huge admission and a massive set-back for the proposed mine project.
Twin Metals just admitted it wants to store 2.6 billion tons of its toxic sulfide-ore copper mine waste 16 miles closer to the Boundary Waters --- in the Boundary Waters watershed, in a landscape of lakes and rivers that flows into the Wilderness.
1. It’s not really news.
Dry-stacking was the original method of tailings storage that was proposed in the October 6, 2014 preliminary feasibility study, for the Twin Metals project.
Why would it make a show of announcing this method of tailings storage? It had another aim in mind.
2. In its press release, Twin Metals intentionally buries the lede.
The lede is not about how it would handle its tailings, it's about where Twin Metals wants to store them. Twin Metals just admitted (see its press release, paragraph #2) that it wants to move the proposed location of its mining waste 16 miles north to a location within a few miles of the Boundary Waters, to an area of lakes and rivers that drain into the Wilderness.
Twin Metals tried everything to keep from having to move its tailings basin into the Boundary Waters watershed. Since at least 2014, Twin Metals’ key messaging strategy has been its intention to keep its mining waste out of the Boundary Waters watershed and far away from Minnesota's crown jewel and America's most-visited Wilderness area.
Now Twin Metals admitted to breaking that promise. Twin Metals' original plan to pump its tailings into the Lake Superior watershed will not work or be allowed. This is bad news for Twin Metals and it knows it, but now it has to admit it will be dumping mountains of mine waste in the Boundary Waters watershed.
With no other options, the company’s PR team used smoke and mirrors to distract, just as a magician would, from what it is actually planning to do: permanently dump billions of tons of sulfide-ore copper mining waste in the headwaters of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Voyageurs National Park.
3. No technology in existence now or on the horizon – including dry-stacking – can prevent a sulfide-ore copper mine in this location from polluting surrounding groundwater and surface water, including the Boundary Waters.
A 2014 study conducted by geophysicist Dr. David Chambers warns “[i]t is not feasible, given today’s or tomorrow’s technology, to reduce the risk of impacting waters downstream from a copper/nickel mine in a sulfide ore body to zero.” The study showed that no tailings storage facility seepage collection system is perfect; “all liners leak.” This is a big deal considering the downstream waters receiving the would-be pollution are protected under the highest “zero degradation” standard under the federal Clean Water Act.
Peer-reviewed and published research in the Journal of Hydrology shows that pollution from a sulfide-ore copper mine in this location will flow into the Boundary Waters. The models demonstrated that under the course of normal operations, proposed mines near the Boundary Waters could cause significant damage to rivers and the Boundary Waters due to leaks to surface waters or substantial groundwater contamination. Still more peer-reviewed science by Earthworks examined the sulfide-ore copper mining industry track record and documents the fact that all modern sulfide-ore copper mines experienced spills, pipeline ruptures, and other releases of mining pollutants.
The science corroborates the conclusion of former Forest Service Chief, Tom Tidwell, in the 2016 US Forest Service decision letter to the Bureau of Land Management denying the renewal of Twin Metals’ mineral leases:
I find unacceptable the inherent potential risk that development of a regionally-untested copper-nickel sulfide ore mine within the same watershed as the [Boundary Waters] might cause serious and irreplaceable harm to this unique, iconic, and irreplaceable wilderness area.
4. Dry-stacking Twin Metals’ tailings will not eliminate the risk of perpetual mining pollution flowing to the Boundary Waters.
Dry-stacking mining waste is not a panacea. In dry-stacking, a company reduces water content of the tailings to around 15%, and dumps them onto a liner. Then the mining company compacts the tailings in the hopes of inhibiting rainwater and snowmelt from soaking in and re-hydrating the tailings. Dry tailings degrade air quality with fugitive dust, which the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has said may contain heavy metals, sulfur, and fine particulates. There are also other risks, as well.
First, there will be toxic seepage from the tailings. Twin Metals would have to build a perpetual seepage collection and treatment system, which means pipes, pumps, valves, and holding tanks, all of which eventually break, leak, rust-through, freeze and burst, or fail in other ways.
Second, all liners, even the best ones, eventually leak,, and Twin Metals can only treat the pollution it catches. Tailings leachate that escapes the liner will go untreated and make its way through groundwater to surface waters.
Third, a dry tailings facility can fail if it is re-saturated. The Boundary Waters watershed receives 30 inches and more of rain and snowmelt each year, and severe rain events are increasingly frequent. This wet environment poses a high risk that Twin Metals’ tailings pile will re-hydrate. Minnesota regulators warn of serious pollution consequences if that happens. This risk is heightened in Twin Metals’ case because the mining company proposes to use topsoil, rather than a plastic or other waterproof liner, to cover its tailings. Topsoil will allow rain and snowmelt to infiltrate the tailings pile. Twin Metals’ own website (e.g., saying that its “tailings can safely be exposed to air and water”) suggests that it understands the risk of its tailings re-hydrating.
Fourth, Twin Metals says that it won’t build a tailings dam to hold back its tailings, saying it’s not necessary. If and when the tailings pile re-hydrates, however, there will be no dam to stop the tailings pile from failing catastrophically – in an area of lakes, streams and rivers that flow into the Boundary Waters.
Finally, the air above the Boundary Waters is a protected Class I airshed. The lakes and rivers of the Boundary Waters are designated the highest level “Outstanding Resource Value Waters.” Pollution from a Twin Metals mine, not only but especially from its tailings, would degrade the Boundary Waters’ air and water quality contrary to law.
HEALTH RISKS NEED TO BE CONSIDERED WHEN DECIDING ABOUT SULFIDE-ORE COPPER MINING
Over the past few years, the medical community in Minnesota has raised an unprecedented voice of concern in response to sulfide-ore copper mining, such as that proposed by PolyMet and Twin Metals. The Minnesota Medical Association, Minnesota Academy of Family Physicians, Minnesota Nurses Association, Minnesota Public Health Organization along with dozens of individual providers, and non-profit groups with ties to human health all submitted letters in response to the one Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) done for sulfide-ore copper mining in Minnesota. The consensus by all of these groups representing over 30,000 healthcare professionals in our state is that an independent Health Impact Assessment (HIA) be mandated as part of an EIS necessary for decisions regarding sulfide-ore copper mining.
Let us state here that we are not writing about the taconite mining industry, which has played and continues to play an important part in Minnesota’s history, economy, and culture. Sulfide-ore copper mining is a toxic industry with a very poor track record of success. A peer-reviewed Earthworks study in 2012 showed that 100% of modern US copper mines that had operated for 5 years or more had already polluted water. Several years can pass before leaks are detected. “Modern mining technology” that has been promised to be “safe” has not proven itself successful.
The World Health Organization lists the ten environmental toxins with greatest concern to human health, and sulfide-ore copper mining releases at least six of these - mercury, lead, arsenic, particulate air pollution, asbestos, and cadmium. Sulfide-ore copper mining also releases sulfates, which fuel the chemical reactions that transform mercury to its toxic form methylmercury.
These toxins have known harmful effects to human health including cancer, lung disease, heart disease, and neurodevelopmental diseases (dyslexia and other learning disorders, intellectual disabilities, autism, and ADHD among them). Babies from gestation through age three are especially vulnerable due to their rapidly growing brains, which have a high affinity for these heavy metals.
Not only will the water quality suffer, but so too the air. Due to releases of fine particulates, asbestos, and asbestos-like particles, sulfide-ore copper mining in the Superior National Forest (SNF) on the doorstep to the BWCA would be expected to cause degradation of the air quality in a significant portion of the Boundary Waters, potentially endangering miners, members of the community, and visitors to the area.
Given these still-present concerns, it is time again to raise our voices regarding the current decisions being made in Washington DC regarding the SNF “mineral withdrawal” (note that the terminology in the current federal process is confusing – withdrawal does not refer to mineral extraction, but rather to withdrawal of parcels of federal land from mining eligibility) in the Rainy River watershed. The outcome of the current process will directly affect our state’s crown jewel, the Boundary Waters Wilderness.
In short, unless protections are given to the sensitive area under study, there remains potential for a large, industrial sulfide-ore copper mining site on the banks of the Kawishiwi River at the headwaters of the BWCA. Any toxic leachate would enter the Kawishiwi River and then flow north into the heart of the BWCA and ultimately into the Rainy River and Canada.
To guard against these insidious health effects, we are urging the US Forest Service to do a comprehensive and robust Environmental Assessment regarding mineral lease withdrawal in the Rainy River watershed, specifically in regard to the risks to human health. This must include modeling for “less than ideal” releases similar to that seen in other sulfide-ore copper mines rather than limiting the modeling to the “best case scenario” often promised but never accomplished.
It is also imperative that this assessment include not only the potential negative effects of a sulfide-ore copper mine in this water-rich area, but also include an assessment of the economic and cultural benefits of the current region as it stands and the risks/costs of what will be lost with the development of such mining at the headwaters of the BWCA. It is our opinion that a robust EA including these components will clearly demonstrate that mineral withdrawal in the Rainy River watershed is necessary to protect the health and wellness of this sensitive and special region of our state.
We travelled to Washington, DC recently and voiced our concerns about these health impacts. Now more than ever, we need concerned Minnesotans to raise their voices, and we ask you to join us. Please go to the following website https://www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=50938 and submit a comment under “Comment/Object on Project”.
John Ipsen, MD PhD
Jennifer Pearson, MD
Steven Sutherland, MD
Kris Wegerson, MD
The Boundary Waters has never needed us more than it needs us now. The wild, natural heart and soul of Minnesota are at stake. Do we want the Boundary Waters and the rest of our beautiful, healthy Arrowhead forests, lakes, and rivers to continue to be the magnet that draws scores of thousands of visitors from around the country and the world every year, with the resulting enrichment of lives and of the economies of Ely, Grand Marais, Tofte, and other Wilderness-edge communities - indeed, of the economy of Minnesota as a whole? Or would we rather have a Chilean mining company, Antofagasta/Twin Metals, begin the development of a vast industrial sulfide-ore mining district in the heart of the Superior National Forest on the doorstep of our priceless Wilderness?
The Trump Administration has taken two actions recently that make the job of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters harder. The Administration decided (i) to create justification for the reissuance of mining leases that were denied by the Obama Administration and (ii) to downgrade the U.S. Forest Service environmental review for the proposed twenty-year withdrawal of 234,328 acres of the public’s land in the Superior National Forest from the federal mineral leasing program. The Campaign intends to prevail over these setbacks with the help of Campaign partners and their millions of supporters.
First, the Trump Administration Department of the Interior, under Secretary Ryan Zinke, issued a legal opinion on December 22, 2017 that reverses earlier opinions that held that Twin Metals had no right to have old mining leases automatically renewed. If the mining leases were automatically renewable, Twin Metals would be able to avoid legally-required scientific study of the environmental effect of issuing leases for mining in the areas covered by the leases on the South Kawishiwi River and Birch Lake in the Boundary Waters watershed. The Campaign and its pro bono legal counsel believe that the Trump decision is clearly wrong, and we will file a lawsuit in federal court seeking to have the decision overturned. The language of the leases themselves, the federal laws that govern mineral leasing, and statements in the mining company’s own documents prove that Twin Metals has no automatic right of renewal.
Second, the U.S. Forest Service’s request in January 2017 that the Secretary of the Interior withdraw from the federal leasing program all federally-owned minerals in the Rainy River Drainage Basin, which includes the watershed of the Boundary Waters, triggered a legal requirement for environmental review of the environmental, social, and economic effects if sulfide-ore mining were permitted on federally-owned minerals in the Basin. Recognizing that the Boundary Waters is priceless and vulnerable, and fully cognizant of the poisonous water pollution and landscape destruction that always accompany sulfide-ore copper mining, the Forest Service began the process of developing a full environmental impact statement. An EIS provides for a thorough analysis (i) of relevant scientific studies of the impact that sulfide-ore mining would have on the ecology of the Boundary Waters and (ii) of the economic and social impacts of the destruction of a large part of the Superior National Forest and the pollution of Boundary Waters lakes and rivers. An EIS also provides for multiple opportunities for the public to comment during the process.
In another misguided decision, on January 26, 2018 the Trump Administration downgraded the legally-mandated environmental review of the proposed minerals withdrawal from a full EIS to a less-rigorous “environmental assessment.” One of the many negative results of the downgrade is a reduced opportunity for public comment. The Superior National Forest lands at issue belong to all the people of the United States, not to a Chilean mining company with a history of environmental violations and multiple alleged instances of corruption, its allied politicians, and the tiny handful of people who would benefit economically from a Boundary Waters mine.
A second negative result is that an EA may be a less rigorous and comprehensive analysis of the unique ecology of the Boundary Waters region – those very qualities that make the watershed both valuable as the world’s greatest canoe country wilderness and vulnerable to the inevitable and irreparable damage of sulfide-ore copper mining. An EA may not fully document the harm to Wilderness-edge communities, the State of Minnesota, and all people that would result if a large swath of Superior National Forest lands, now ecologically healthy and available for a variety of uses, were converted to a massive industrial mining district. An EA may not fully document the failure of project-specific environmental reviews to accurately predict water pollution generated by hardrock mines near surface and ground waters; those studies are wrong 90% of the time. And an EA may not fully document that all copper mines, including modern copper mines in the United States, pollute water. A full EIS, on the other hand, would document that the only way to protect the Boundary Waters from the ravages of sulfide-ore copper mining is to ban mining on public lands in the watershed of the Boundary Waters.
The Campaign is determined to prevent sulfide-ore copper mining on federal lands in the Boundary Waters watershed. With your help, the Campaign will succeed. Together, this is what we must do:
Together we must fight every effort to damage the Boundary Waters. And together we will prevail.
On Tuesday November 7, Wisconsin lawmakers eager to promote sulfide-ore copper mining passed and sent a bill to repeal that state’s “Prove it First” sulfide mining moratorium law to Governor Walker’s desk. The Prove-it-First law was passed in 1998 and obligates any company seeking a Wisconsin mining permit to show first that a single sulfide-ore mine anywhere in the U.S. or Canada has operated for at least 10 years and been closed for at least 10 years without polluting surrounding water. Since the law’s passage, no new sulfide-ore copper mine has been developed in Wisconsin.
Of course, there would be no need to repeal the law if there were a single example of a sulfide-ore copper mine that had operated and been closed for at least 10 years without polluting surrounding water. There is no such mine, all sulfide-ore copper mines pollute. Mines occasionally suggested as “clean” have, upon closer inspection of records, been shown demonstrably either to have polluted or not yet to have been operated and closed for at least 10 years (hence Tuesday's move to repeal Wisconsin’s prudent-yet-inconvenient Prove-it-First law.)
Wisconsin would be wise to reject this push from legislators and retain their sensible requirements on environmental protection.
Mines That Have Claimed to be Clean but Have Polluted:
H.R. 3905 is a dangerous bill proposed by Tom Emmer. What follows is a short summary of the bill to help you better understand what this legislation means for Minnesota. H.R. 3905 was introduced on October 5, 2017 by Rep. Tom Emmer (R-MN), and if passed it would eliminate environmental laws and overturn science-based decisions that currently protect the Boundary Waters and the Superior and Chippewa National Forests.
Effects of H.R. 3905:
H.R. 3905 would automatically grant Twin Metals Minnesota LLC (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Chilean copper mining company, Antofagasta) two federal mineral leases covering 5,000 acres of Superior National Forest lands. The leases would cover lands along and underneath rivers and lakes that flow into the Wilderness. Last December, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) rejected a request to renew the two leases after the U.S. Forest Service withheld its consent to renewal. Peer-reviewed science published early in 2016 concluded that under ordinary operating conditions, sulfide-ore copper mining in the watershed would pollute the Boundary Waters.
H.R. 3905 would undermine the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by eliminating NEPA’s requirement of environmental review before any decision is made to renew federal mineral leases in the watershed of a National Wilderness Area. Ordinarily, a federal proposal to renew a federal mineral lease is categorically excluded from NEPA’s environmental review requirement. There is an exception, however, that applies if the proposal to renew federal mineral leases might affect a federally-designated Wilderness Area. The U.S. Forest Service cited the risk to the Boundary Waters when it declined to consent to renewal of Twin Metals’ leases last year, and peer-reviewed published science makes clear that the Twin Metals leases, if renewed, pose an inherent risk of toxic pollution to the Boundary Waters. Therefore, any renewal of Twin Metals now-expired leases would have to undergo a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) as required under NEPA. The passage of H.R. 3905 would grant the Twin Metals mining leases without the required EIS under NEPA and without an opportunity for public input. Instead, H.R. 3905 directs there be a 30-day environmental assessment (EA) before automatically granting lease renewals. An EA is not an EIS; 30 days is not enough time to do an environmental review; and NEPA requires environmental review to inform a later decision, meaning a foregone conclusion to grant leases regardless of the environmental review is totally contrary to NEPA.
H.R. 3905 would void the U.S. Forest Service’s Record of Decision (ROD), which explains the facts, science, and public input on which the Forest Service based its decision not to give consent to renewal of Twin Metals’ mineral leases. In the ROD, the Forest Service explained that after reviewing the facts, science, and public input including meetings with elected officials around the state, it would not consent to renewal of the leases due to the inherent risk that sulfide-ore copper mining would cause serious pollution to the Boundary Waters -- pollution that could not be prevented or mitigated. The Forest Service further explained that it is obligated by the 1978 BWCA Wilderness Act to manage the Superior National Forest protect the waters of the Boundary Waters, and that that requires protecting waters that flow into the Wilderness.
H.R. 3905 would make all mineral leases issued in the Superior and Chippewa National Forests in Minnesota perpetually renewable. The bill mandates an initial 20-year lease term with automatic 10-year renewals in perpetuity. This would eliminate the consent rights of the Forest Service for lease renewals, the discretionary authority of the BLM, and NEPA’s requirement for open scientific analysis and public input.
The bill would override the 1946 and 1950 laws that make clear that no federal minerals can be leased in the Superior and Chippewa National Forests without the consent of the U.S. Department of Agriculture - Forest Service. The 1950 law requiring consent applies to public domain lands (those that have been in U.S. ownership since 1854), and the 1946 mineral law applies to acquired lands. Public domain lands constitute 90% of relevant Superior National Forest lands. Acquired lands, which were purchased for watershed and timber supply protection, make up the remainder. Both laws make clear that federal mineral leases can only be granted if the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture consents to the leasing. The 1946 Act directs that mineral leasing on acquired lands can only occur if the Secretary of Agriculture advises the Secretary of the Interior, “that such development will not interfere with the primary purposes for which the land was acquired and only in accordance with such conditions as may be specified by the Secretary of Agriculture in order to protect such purposes.” H.R. 3905 overrides the 1946 law because it is clear that sulfide-ore copper mining would interfere with watershed protection.
The bill would amend the 1906 Antiquities Act by mandating Congressional approval for any national monument designations in the Superior and Chippewa National Forests. The Antiquities Act of 1906 gives the President of the United States the power to establish National Monuments, a power that has been used by Democratic and Republican presidents alike over the past 110 years. H.R. 3905 strips the President’s authority so that it no longer applies to Minnesota. This is a very dangerous precedent, that, if passed, would place Minnesota beneath all other states, would weaken the Presidency, and could lead to the state-by-state gutting of the Antiquities Act.
The bill would amend the 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) by mandating Congressional approval for mineral withdrawals in the Superior and Chippewa National Forests. The Forest Service, in consultation with the BLM, is in the process of conducting a two-year study on a possible federal mineral “withdrawal.” The withdrawal would put 234,328 acres of federal land located on the Superior National Forest and within the Boundary Waters watershed, off-limits to new mineral leasing and exploration permits for up to 20 years. Current law, in FLPMA, empowers the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Interior to order a withdrawal of federal land for up to 20 years. H.R. 3905 would strip the Secretary of his power to order a federal withdrawal in Minnesota. Instead, any proposed withdrawal by the Secretary of Interior on federal lands in Minnesota would also require Congressional approval.
H.R. 3905 would bar the Forest Service from complying with the 1978 Boundary Waters Wilderness Act. Congress directed the Forest Service to maintain the high water quality of the Boundary Waters and a Mining Protection Area within the Superior National Forest. The Forest Service concluded that consenting to mineral lease requests by Twin Metals would be “contrary to Congress’ determination that it is necessary to ‘protect the special qualities of the [BWCAW] as a natural forest-lakeland wilderness ecosystem of major esthetic, scientific, recreational and educational value to the Nation.”
This bill puts the fate of the Boundary Waters in the hands of a Chilean mining conglomerate, Antofagasta, which owns Twin Metals Minnesota LLC. Antofagasta has a devastating record of environmental pollution at its South American copper mines,including a $23 million fine for water pollution at its flagship copper mine in Chile’s Atacama desert (one of the driest locations on Earth). Antofagasta also has a history of labor strife, and of taking more water than permitted. Andronico Luksic - the head of Chile’s wealthiest family and owner of the Luksic Group, which controls Antofagasta - has a documented history of doing big-money favors for Presidential family members in Chile and the U.S. Neither Antofagasta nor its subsidiaries has ever operated a copper mine in a water-rich place such as the Superior National Forest. The mines that Antofagasta/Twin Metals wants to build would be in the headwaters of the Boundary Waters, the only significant lakeland Wilderness Area and the most visited Wilderness in America.
My husband Dave and I skijored to the deepest spot on Wood Lake. Sled dogs Tina and Acorn pulled Dave. I followed with Tank enthusiastically trotting along. The air temperature was 10 degrees below zero—it was cold and the wind out of the northwest made it even colder. We paused near an island to detach ourselves from the dogs and walked the rest of the way to the deep spot. GPS in hand, Dave confirmed our position and kicked snow off the surface of the ice with his ski boot. He assembled our hand-powered ice drill and I pulled out the Hach Meter and clipboard. This was our 61st lake for measurements. The data we collected included dissolved oxygen and water temperatures for every meter—from the surface to the bottom or the end of the 15-meter probe, whichever came first. We also measured conductivity at the surface and when lakes were not ice-covered, turbidity with a secchi disk.
As Dave completed the final cranks of the hand-powered ice drill and pulled it from the hole, I pulled the batteries for the Hach Meter from my warm pocket. If I had left them in the Hach Meter even for our 20-minute ski, they wouldn’t have functioned in the cold. I breathed a sigh of relief as the Hach Meter powered on and I lowered the probe into the hole. Dave did jumping jacks as I wrote down measurements—happy to have mastered the art of wielding the pencil with my mitten on. The dogs watched with curiosity from their spot, nestled in the spruces. Despite the fact that the lake was only 5 meters deep, this was our most challenging spot to measure. I longed for the ice-free season when I simply lowered the probe over the gunwale of the canoe.
Why were we bothering to collect this data? In addition to keeping the beloved Boundary Waters on peoples' minds for an entire year, we also collected water quality data for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), adding measurements from 100 bodies of water to its database. We also collected water samples for Adventure Scientists’ Global Microplastics Initiative.
It will be a while until the data is publicly available on the MPCA and Adventure Scientists websites, but I can share with you a few things we learned during the process. It was expected that most Boundary Waters lakes would have dissolved oxygen greater than 5 mg/L (milligrams per liter) at the surface; we frequently saw dissolved oxygen higher than 7 mg/L—and it was not uncommon for us to find 10 mg/L or higher. In deep lakes, it is normal for dissolved oxygen to drop to near 0 mg/L mid-summer, about 10-20 feet down at the thermocline. Lake trout are cold-water fish and can be found in many of the deep, clear lakes in the Boundary Waters. These fish need dissolved oxygen concentrations greater than about 7 mg/L from the surface all the way to near the bottom to survive and we were happy to confirm that was the case in many of the deep, clear lakes that we measured.
I’ll give Basswood Lake a little more scrutiny, since it has a thriving fishery and is known for excellent fishing opportunities for lake trout, walleye and smallmouth bass—and it happens to be downstream from the proposed Twin Metals mine site. We took our measurements at the deepest part of Basswood, which is 111 feet deep and maxed out our probe. The dissolved oxygen at the surface was 10.29 mg/L, and halfway down (14 meters) it was still a healthy 9.3 mg/L. No wonder Basswood is a world-class fishing destination!
What about the samples for the Global Microplastics Initiative? They are being analyzed now and soon we will find out how many pieces of microplastics were found in each liter of water that we gathered. Microplastics are plastic particles smaller than 5 millimeters in size. They pose a significant environmental and human health risk when they enter our waterways. The Adventure Scientists have found microplastics in the vast majority of samples they have compiled over the last few years. It will be exciting to see the results from the samples we gathered.
Just in the past year, more and more reports are coming out about lakes being un-swimmable or unfishable due to pollution in the southern part of Minnesota. The walleye fishery in Lake Mille Lacs is in decline. Yet we happily drank out of, swam in and handily fished in the wilderness lakes of the Boundary Waters during our year out there. We are fortunate that wilderness advocates have kept the Boundary Waters forests untrammeled and the water unpolluted up until now, but it will take foresight and diligence to keep them that way.
“This is the most beautiful lake country on the continent. We can afford to cherish and protect it. Some places should be preserved from development or exploitation for they satisfy a human need for solace, belonging and perspective. In the end we turn to nature in a frenzied chaotic world, there to find silence—oneness—wholeness—spiritual release.”– Sigurd Olson
Take action today to protect the clean water of the Boundary Waters for future generations.
Dave and Amy Freeman, 2014 National Geographic Adventurers of the Year, are dedicated to protecting the Boundary Waters from sulfide-ore copper mining proposed on its wilderness edge. In 2014, they paddled and sailed 101 days and 2,000 miles from Ely, MN, to Washington, DC, on the Paddle to DC. From September 23, 2015 to September 23, 2016, the Freemans spent A Year in the Wilderness, camping at approximately 120 different sites, exploring 500 lakes, rivers and streams, and traveling more than 2,000 miles by canoe, foot, ski, snowshoe and dog team. They documented their year and will continue to share their stories on social media (@FreemanExplore, #WildernessYear) and in blog posts. A documentary about their journey, Bear Witness, premiered fall 2016. A book about their year will be published by Milkweed Editions in fall 2017.
This is Part II of our blog about the recent Duluth comment period hearing and our concerns about Twin Metals' parent company, Antofagasta. Make sure to read Part I of this blog, Strong Voices at Hearing and Rally in Duluth.
America’s most-visited Wilderness area is threatened by sulfide-ore copper mining proposed on nearby lands in the Wilderness watershed.
The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness contains 1.1 million acres of pristine water and unspoiled woodlands, including more than 1,175 lakes and more than a thousand miles of rivers and streams. The Superior National Forest, which includes the Boundary Waters, contains 20 percent of all the fresh water in the entire National Forest System. This great natural landscape is the backbone of a thriving gateway business community that exists because every year hundreds of thousands of people from around the world visit to enjoy this spectacular region of woods and waters.
The copper mining industry has a long history of acid mine drainage and heavy metals leaching with catastrophic environmental impacts, especially to water. And even state-of-the-art mines are at risk for major infrastructure disaster. For example, in August 2014, a tailings dam breach at the Mount Polley copper and gold mine in British Columbia released 4.5 million cubic meters of toxic slurry into a lake and river system that was a priceless salmon spawning area [Photo by Jonathan Hayward, The Canadian Press]. Two days later, a mine in Mexico spilled 40,000 cubic meters of copper sulfate acid into two rivers, wiping out the water supply for a vast rural area that depended on the river water for domestic use and agriculture. Fish and wildlife were devastated.
Now Twin Metals Minnesota, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Antofagasta PLC of Chile, is suing the United States demanding renewal of two sulfide-ore copper mining leases on the edge of our unique and fragile Boundary Waters Wilderness. Antofagasta, which owns several copper mines in Chile, has an environmental and social track record that should concern anyone who cares about the Boundary Waters and the communities around it.
Antofagasta should never be entrusted with the health and safety of the Boundary Waters and its watershed. In Chile, Antofagasta:
Here in the U.S., Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner’s new landlord just happens to be Andrónico Luksic. The Wall Street Journal reported that a business owned by Luksic bought a Washington, DC mansion for $5.5 million on December 22, 2016, and that twelve days after the purchase, Luksic’s company rented the mansion to Ms. Trump and Mr. Kushner.
While Andrónico Luksic has tweeted that Ms. Trump and Mr. Kushner are paying market rate rent - and perhaps they are - the real cause for concern is that Luksic of Antofagasta reportedly spent $5.5 million to make a mansion available to members of the First Family and top advisors to President Donald Trump at a time when Antofagasta is suing the United States to try to force renewal of mineral leases near the Boundary Waters.
We hope these reported efforts to open the watershed of the Boundary Waters to sulfide-ore copper mining are stopped; and that the Forest Service and the BLM maintain a steady course and complete the environmental review already underway; and that two years from now Interior Secretary Zinke sees the merit in, and orders, the 20-year withdrawal of federal lands inside the watershed of the Boundary Waters, from mining, as has been proposed by the U.S. Forest Service."
Matt Norton is the Campaign's policy director. He previously worked as campaign director with Minnesota Environmental Partnership, and as forestry and wildlife advocate and staff attorney for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy.
This is Part I of our blog about the recent Duluth comment period hearing and our concerns about Twin Metals' parent company, Antofagasta. Make sure to read Part II of this blog, Foreign Mining Company Threatens Boundary Waters.
Last week, the Campaign and partners gathered in Duluth as part of an official public hearing at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center, to speak up for the protection of the Boundary Waters from sulfide-ore copper mining. Just before the hearing, which was part of the scoping process for the two-year environmental review now underway, supporters of saving the Boundary Waters held a rally, complete with We Love the BWCA signs, and rousing speakers who addressed the risks of sulfide-ore copper mining near the Boundary Waters.
During the meeting, the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management heard comments from business owners, Arrowhead residents, citizens from across the state who enjoy wilderness recreation and clean water, and sportsmen and women. They also heard from supporters of sulfide-ore copper mining.
Speakers supporting protection of the Wilderness shared the critical points they believe should be considered during the two-year environmental review, including the economic impact a sulfide-ore copper mine would have on tourism and outdoor recreation economy, the risky history of this type of mining, the damage pollution from sulfide-ore copper mining would do to the ecosystem and human health, and much more.
People spoke 31 to 22 in favor of protecting the Wilderness and continuing the current environmental review on the sensitivity of the Boundary Waters Wilderness watershed, and the risks of sulfide-ore copper mining. We are proud of our supporters who shared comments during the rally and have submitted written comments, as well. If you missed the Duluth public hearing, or you attended but didn’t get a chance to speak, please know that this important public comment meeting will be followed by others. You also should be aware that there has been a 120-day extension of the comment period, which now concludes August 17.
During the remainder of this comment period, it is critical for all supporters of protecting the Boundary Waters to submit comments and raise their voices. We ask that you ask your friends and family members to submit comments as well. We’ll share any information on subsequent comment meetings when they are announced. At the conclusion of the comment period, the U.S. Forest Service will begin drafting the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS). Later, likely in early 2019, a Final EIS will be released, and then, perhaps some months later, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke will make a decision about whether to protect this watershed for a 20-year period.
This two-year environmental review process runs on public input, and your input absolutely will be required again, not only at the next public hearing (location and date are still to be determined) and in the remainder of this comment period, but again once the U.S. Forest Service has released the DEIS, and finally when the FEIS is published. Your public lands, and the future of the Boundary Waters, are certainly worth it.
As you think about what you want to convey to our federal agencies, consider these excerpts from a sampling of speakers at the Duluth hearing last Thursday, March 16:
"The riskiest place to put a sulfide-ore copper mine is a water-rich environment like the Boundary Waters,” said Jason Zabokrtsky of Ely Outfitting Co. and Boundary Waters Guide Service (pictured).
“The natural landscape is what drives our economy. It’s what makes us different,” said Dave Seaton, owner of Hungry Jack Outfitters on the Gunflint Trail. “Clean water is more valuable than copper.”
"We are looking at jobs for a finite period and pollution that can last over 500 years," said Will Jenkins of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.
The process for this environmental review began late last year, when the Departments of Agriculture and Interior announced an intention to initiate a “withdrawal” of public lands from the federal minerals leasing program, in order to protect the natural assets of the Superior National Forest and the Boundary Waters. That announcement of intent was followed in January of this year by formal publication of intent in the Federal Register to do a two-year environmental review on the effects of the proposed withdrawal.
The withdrawal process is one that is provided for in law - specifically in section 204 of the Federal Land Policy Management Act (FLPMA), and in federal regulations promulgated by the Department of the Interior pursuant to FLPMA. The withdrawal process has been used in the past many times, notably to protect the Grand Canyon from increased uranium mining, and to protect Yellowstone National Park from the threat of sulfide-gold mining.
Much of the opposition to the current process, at least as I observed in the Duluth hearing last Thursday, seems to be coming from supporters of the proposal by Twin Metals to mine sulfide-copper ore next to the Boundary Waters. That project can no longer move forward because the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management declined to renew Twin Metals’ expired mineral leases, leases which are now cancelled. Whether because they invested financially in the Twin Metals project, or because they hoped that the project would benefit them in other ways, the supporters tend to see the answer to local or personal needs in the Twin Metals project. Are they seeing the full picture? After all, Twin Metals parent company, Antofagasta has a troubling track record.
READ MORE: Learn about Twin Metals' owner Antofagasta and our concerns regarding their environmental and social track record in Part II of this blog: Science Desk: Foreign Mining Company Threatens Boundary Waters.
Matt Norton is the Campaign's policy director. He previously worked as campaign director with Minnesota Environmental Partnership, and as forestry and wildlife advocate and staff attorney for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy.