In “Consistency critical in mining reviews” (March 20), the Star Tribune Editorial Board expressed “serious doubts that copper mining can be done responsibly at the Twin Metals site” at the edge of and upstream from the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northeastern Minnesota. These doubts are well-founded. The 1.1-million-acre Boundary Waters is the most popular, most accessible and most family-friendly wilderness in the nation. If allowed at the edge of the wilderness, sulfide-ore copper mining — with what the editorial calls the industry’s “abysmal record of leaving behind environmental disasters” — would massively and irreparably damage this great wilderness and the thriving local economies around it in Ely, Grand Marais, Tofte and more.
While I appreciate the Star Tribune’s recognition of the threat, I respectfully disagree with its criticism of the federal process underway to evaluate renewal of the mining leases at issue. The Editorial Board wrote that “Twin Metals is suddenly following a very different rule book.” In fact, the rules being applied by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) are precisely correct for requests to mine federal minerals on federal lands — minerals owned by the American people. These rules apply to leases to mine federal taxpayer-owned minerals near the Boundary Waters, or anywhere else.
This is in sharp contrast to the PolyMet project that the Editorial Board cites, where the company seeks to extract privately owned minerals.
To explain further: The recent opinion issued by legal counsel at the U.S. Department of the Interior — which confirmed that the BLM has license to decide whether mining is appropriate at the edge of the Boundary Waters — simply brought the process up to speed with current environmental laws that did not exist when Twin Metals’ leases were issued in 1966. This is the same process any federal mineral lease goes through under the National Environmental Policy Act, which was enacted in 1970.
The leases that Twin Metals held in the Boundary Waters watershed have never undergone environmental review. To do such a review now is not only legally appropriate, it’s just common sense — especially given the extreme proximity to a priceless wilderness that legally must be protected from pollution in its own right under the Wilderness Act.
Moreover, the idea that Twin Metals is somehow entitled to mine federal minerals is contrary to law and to the plain language of the now-expired federal mineral leases. The Interior Department’s well-reasoned legal opinion confirmed that Twin Metals has no absolute right of renewal. This opinion is not a one-time rule change; it confirms the long-standing interpretation of these leases by the BLM and the Interior Department.
The BLM will now begin a thorough, science-based and transparent environmental review of the Twin Metals request to renew the leases. It is, indeed, a routine federal process consistently applied across the U.S. that can be a basis for deciding which federal lands should be open to mining and which areas should be off-limits.
During the environmental review, the BLM will consider scientific reports to evaluate the impact of sulfide-ore copper mining on the woods and waters of the Boundary Waters region. Perhaps more important, the process will give the American people — who own the minerals that Twin Metals seeks to extract as well as the lands and waters that Twin Metals would despoil — the opportunity to express their views on whether the sulfide-ore copper mining should be allowed near a national treasure.
Becky Rom is vice chair of Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness and volunteer national chair of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters.