Minnesotans and others who want to protect the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA) have not had enough time to register concerns about controversial federal plans to grant 10-year mineral lease renewals to a company pursuing a copper-nickel mine on this beloved preserve's edge.
The federal agency overseeing the leases ended the public comment period far too soon and needs to honor a reasonable request from several members of the state's congressional delegation to considerably extend the time allotted. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) oversees the leases and Twin Metals Minnesota is the company seeking them. The firm is owned by Antofagasta, a Chilean-based mining conglomerate.
Several companies hope to tap the rich reserves of copper, nickel and precious metal in northeast Minnesota, but Twin Metals' proximity to the BWCA heightens environmental concerns. Unlike PolyMet, a northeast Minnesota copper mine project that recently received key final permits, Twin Metals' would be located within the BWCA's watershed. Pollution potentially discharged from it would flow toward the protected, pristine waters.
To be clear, the proposed Twin Metals mine would not lie within the BWCA. But details that have been made available suggest that a critical component of its operations — its ore-processing facility — could be located 0.38 of a mile from the shoreline of Birch Lake, whose waters flow into the BWCA. This facility is where rock would be milled and go through a process to separate out metal. Similar mines use a flotation process to do this, which involves water that must then be discharged. The short path for any pollutants to get from this proposed facility to Birch Lake is troubling — and why careful scrutiny is needed even though it is still years away from becoming reality and may not clear the regulatory hurdles.
Part of that scrutiny involves giving the public time to become informed about key regulatory decisions and to weigh in on them. The timeline following BLM mineral lease announcement illustrates the inadequacy of the public comment period. BLM released its cursory environmental review undergirding the lease renewal on Dec. 20 and made it available for public comment through Jan. 22, according to a spokesman. It subsequently extended the period to Jan. 30.
The paltry time frame was too short to begin with and does not make up for the serious hurdles faced by citizens, businesses and local and tribal governments who wanted to comment either for or against the lease decision. A key reason: The recent partial government shutdown encompassed almost all of that time — a concern noted in a Jan. 18 letter signed by Minnesota U.S. Reps. Betty McCollum, Ilhan Omar and Dean Phillips and four other House members.
"Many of the staff that Americans would typically reach out to for assistance have been furloughed for most of this comment period," McCollum's office said in a statement. "Much of the comment period also overlapped with the Christmas and New Year holidays, creating another potential burden for the public to comment."
There also were technical "outages" with the BLM server, causing problems for those wanting to comment electronically. Concerns sent by alternate means faced difficulty, as well. A spokesman for the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters said in a Jan. 22 Star Tribune story that the organization tried to send comments via FedEx but was told by the carrier that no one was available at the agency's door to pick up them up.
It is unclear if the amount of time granted for public comment on this lease decision is typical. But generally when there is more public interest or more serious environmental risks are involved, officials will extend the comment period. U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith have called for an extension, and McCollum wants to ensure the public has a minimum of 60 days to comment when the government is operating.
So what's the downside of an extension? A BLM spokesman declined to answer, and a Twin Metals spokesman provided a vague statement about welcoming input, adding that there have been multiple opportunities for it.
Frank Ongaro, executive director of the Mining Minnesota trade group, had this to say: "The public comment period for input on the Environmental Assessment for Twin Metals leases renewal was sufficient. We had no objection to BLM's short extension to the comment period. The BLM determined in the environmental assessment that there are no environmental concerns. No additional extension is necessary."
McCollum and other members of Minnesota's congressional delegation have raised reasonable concerns. The BLM should grant additional time to mitigate the damaging perception that the agency really doesn't want citizens to have a say.