WASHINGTON – The Trump administration is scaling back an environmental review of mining near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, infuriating environmentalists but delighting Iron Range communities eager for new jobs.
The Obama administration ordered a comprehensive study a year ago, as part of a broader effort to block a copper-nickel mining operation from a huge swath of forests and lakes next to one of Minnesota’s most beloved outdoor recreation areas. Instead of that study, known as an environmental impact statement, the U.S. Forest Service said Friday it would conduct a more modest review, called an environmental assessment.
Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton blasted the decision, making reference to the firm behind the proposal, Twin Metals Minnesota, and its Chilean parent company.
“It’s terrible that the Trump Administration is putting the financial interests of the Chilean mining conglomerate, Antofagasta, ahead of protecting the Boundary Waters Canoe Area for generations of Minnesotans and other Americans,” Dayton said in a statement Friday. “The Administration is downgrading its analysis ... and, shamefully, exempting from that review Antofagasta’s proposed underground mine directly adjacent to the iconic wilderness area.”
The agency is rolling back a detailed scientific study the Obama administration ordered last January, when it raised the idea of banning mining operations from 230,000 acres of northern Minnesota’s Superior National Forest.
The proposal, and the two-year study attached to it, outraged many Iron Range residents who saw copper-nickel mining as a potential lifeline for a region hit hard by a long-running slump in steel and taconite mining.
U.S. Rep Rick Nolan, a Democrat whose district includes pristine lakes and forestland along the Canadian border as well as the steel mining communities of the Iron Range, cheered Friday’s announcement.
“This decision ... is the sensible and correct one, based on facts and science,” Nolan said in a statement. If mining is allowed to proceed in the area, Nolan said, “any proposed mining project ... will still need to go through a rigorous, extensive environmental review process at both the state and federal level.”
Mining proponents say the people who live and work near the BWCA have a vested interest in ensuring that mining operations will be safe and will not damage the region’s beauty or its value as a tourist draw.
Environmentalists, however, were aghast at the idea of greenlighting more sulfide-ore mining in the watershed of a federally protected wilderness without a detailed scientific review.
“There’s no room for shortcuts when it comes to the Boundary Waters,” Doug Niemela, manager of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, said in a statement Friday. “All Americans, no matter how they feel about this issue, deserve the most thorough and rigorous analysis possible to determine the risks of sulfide-ore copper mining near the Boundary Waters.
In its first year, the Trump administration has made sweeping changes to Obama-era environmental regulations and policies.
“The Trump administration’s decision to abandon a comprehensive and public Environment Impact Statement appears to demonstrate that an Interior Department hellbent on advancing toxic mining is calling the shots about the future of this untouched wilderness,” U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., said in a statement, calling it “yet another part of the Trump-[Interior Secretary Ryan] Zinke agenda to turn our public lands and natural treasures into industrial wastelands for private profit.”
But U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minn., whose district abuts the Iron Range, said the latest decision would limit “the damage done to thousands of Minnesotans by the previous administration’s politically motivated action.
“These steps taken by the Forest Service are encouraging,” Emmer said in a statement. “I am hopeful that proposals to mine in Minnesota will finally be allowed to start the rigorous federal and state environmental approval processes that must still be completed before any mining actually begins.”