Tom Landwehr, who was Minnesota’s commissioner of natural resources for the last eight years, has been hired by the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters as the group intensifies its fight to stop a proposed copper mine near the revered wilderness.
The Ely-based group is focused on a proposal by Twin Metals Minnesota, a subsidiary of the Chilean mining giant Antofagasta, to develop an underground mine on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, on the Kawishiwi River near Ely.
It’s one of two proposed copper-nickel mines in the area. The other, proposed by PolyMet Mining Corp., has cleared most of Minnesota’s regulatory hurdles. But the Twin Metals project is closer to the Boundary Waters and in a watershed that drains into it.
Together, the proposals have been cheered by many residents and political leaders on the Iron Range, who hope for a revival of the region’s once-mighty mining industry.
But environmentalists fear that mining copper and nickel will leach heavy metals and other damaging pollutants into a pristine and popular wilderness area.
Landwehr headed the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) for eight years under former Gov. Mark Dayton, where he oversaw the long permitting process for PolyMet, and previously worked at the Nature Conservancy and Ducks Unlimited.
The group’s former executive director, Doug Niemela, left last summer to lead the Minnesota Environmental Fund.
In an interview, Landwehr said he’s spent 37 years conserving wild space in Minnesota and considers the Twin Metals project “unconscionable.”
“We would not consider putting a mine on the edge of the Grand Canyon, or on the edge of Yellowstone,” Landwehr said.
Landwehr said he first learned about the Twin Metals project when DNR staff showed him detailed maps. He said he noticed that the mine would be close to Little Gabbro Lake, his favorite entry point to the Boundary Waters. His father, he said, was a competitive canoeist. “It was mind-numbing to me that there could be a proposal to put a mine right there,” he said.
Landwehr’s state government experience will be an asset for the group as Twin Metals moves through the state permitting process. The company is still in the early stages of regulatory approval, and is expected to file a formal mine plan of operations with state and federal regulators by this summer, a step that prompts an environmental review.
“We agree a mine proposal should be required to undergo that thorough environmental review, following the same legal permitting process Mr. Landwehr oversaw as PolyMet worked through their application,” said Twin Metals spokesman David Ulrich. “This permitting process, on behalf of all Minnesotans and U.S. citizens, is to determine whether a project can safely meet all environmental requirements. This process should be allowed to move forward.”
The company plans to mine an outcropping called the Duluth Complex, considered one of the largest untapped copper-nickel deposits in the world.
The project was all but dead in late 2016, after the Obama administration decided not to renew Twin Metals’ two mineral leases and issued a 20-year stay on minerals exploration on more than 200,000 acres of national forest just outside the Boundary Waters.
In an about-face in late 2017 under President Donald Trump, the federal government canceled an environmental review, renewed the two mining leases and reopened the forest lands to mineral exploration.
Three congressional committees are asking Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt to explain the reversal.
Landwehr called the reversal “extremely troubling.”
“It really just erodes the faith in the process and sells citizens short,” he said.