The recent reversal of a last-minute Obama administration move to block a mining project on the edge of northern Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is troubling but should come as a shock to no one.
A year ago, the state’s environmental advocates were hailing a major victory in their efforts to derail a risky new type of mining in Minnesota — copper and nickel extraction, which can discharge polluted water long after mining ends. A high-profile lobbying campaign led by Ely’s politically connected Becky Rom helped convince outgoing Obama officials to reject a Chilean-owned mining company’s routine request to renew two leases on federally owned land near the BWCA.
But what is accomplished via political back channels can just as easily be undone, as the Star Tribune Editorial Board warned in late 2016. The victory for environmentalists set an alarming precedent, injecting political advocacy at another point in the oversight process. That cracked open the door to not only undo the decision, but to allow interference elsewhere in what should be a consistent, data-driven review process.
Predictably, the U.S. Department of the Interior, now led by Republican Ryan Zinke, announced last Friday it has rejected the Obama’s administration’s legal basis for denying the two leases. This paves the way for federal officials to grant the leases sought by Twin Metals, which is owned by Chilean conglomerate Antofagasta.
Some context is critical as Minnesotans weigh the developments. The decision does not greenlight mining on the leased parcels, located south of Ely and north of Babbitt. The company is still doing exploration. When it decides to go further, the project will have to go through environmental reviews and permitting, a process that has mired down PolyMet, another northern Minnesota copper mining project, for a decade.
The Interior decision also leaves intact an additional proposal by the outgoing Obama administration to “withdraw 235,000 acres of federal lands and minerals in northern Minnesota from future mining activity,” according to a Twin Metals statement.
Still, there’s reason to be alarmed about the credibility of future decisionmaking on the Twin Metals project, which unlike PolyMet is located within the BWCA watershed. The lease reversal by Obama officials, done in the last days of the administration, spotlighted the project. That put a big target on it under a new president and Republican-controlled Congress who are aggressively pursuing environmental protection rollbacks.
Not surprisingly, legislation favorable to the mining industry has been introduced in Congress. A bill authored by U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer, a Republican representing Minnesota’s Sixth Congressional District, would restore Twin Metals’ leases and reopen the 235,000 acres to mining exploration. The bill passed the House last month but hasn’t cleared the Senate.
The Obama administration denial may have spurred Antofagasta to ramp up its own efforts to protect its project. Is it really mere coincidence that the head of the wealthy Luksic family, which controls Antofagasta, just happened late last year to the buy the Washington, D.C., home that Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner now rent?
The Editorial Board has long doubted that mining can be done safely so close to the BWCA. But it has put its faith in traditional environmental and permitting reviews that rely on data-driven analyses by state and federal agencies. The retaliatory politics now re-energizing the Twin Metals project cast serious doubt on the process for this particular project.
For that reason, it’s time to discuss other protective measures, such as legislation creating a permanent mining buffer zone around the BWCA. An act of Congress, rather than administrative measures, is a preferable, more transparent avenue to accomplish this. It’s a long shot but not impossible. U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen, a Republican representing Minnesota’s Third District, voted against Emmer’s bill. Paulsen also issued a moving statement on how the BWCA must be “preserved for future generations.”
Paulsen should put those words into action and lead on a buffer zone before it’s too late to protect one of America’s greatest natural treasures.