President Joe Biden has committed to an extraordinary measure to protect the nation's natural resources — signing an executive order on Wednesday that aims to conserve 30% of U.S. lands and waters by 2030.
One of the first steps in making this "30 by 30" plan a reality ought to be completing the vital work interrupted by the Trump administration — preventing irreparable harm to northeastern Minnesota's Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA). This beloved, fragile ecosystem is endangered. The Chilean-owned mining conglomerate Antofagasta wants to open an underground 20,000-ton-per-day copper mine called Twin Metals on the edge of a lake whose waters drain into the BWCA.
As the Star Tribune Editorial Board argued in a 2019 special report, "The BWCA is not a place to try to manage pollution risks; it is where risk must be rejected altogether." Assurances about new mining technology are no guarantee against failures and errors that could allow mine pollution to flow into the wilderness.
In 2016, the outgoing Obama administration rejected key Twin Metals lease renewals needed to mine federally owned land. This decision also kicked off a two-year scientific study to determine if copper mining's risks to the BWCA watershed necessitated a 20-year moratorium on the mining site.
Dubious legal maneuvering by the Trump administration led to renewal of the leases Twin Metals sought. The administration also halted the scientific study just months before its completion, then kept it under wraps.
Swiftly reviewing the legal maneuvering and committing to completing the halted study would be a strong, high-profile start to carrying out the praiseworthy new "30 by 30" plan. Tom Vilsack, Biden's pick to lead the U.S. Department of Agriculture, also understands copper mining's threat to the BWCA. That's another reason for an early focus on Twin Metals as "30 by 30" gets underway.
In a statement, Twin Metals said its mine aligns with Biden's climate change goals and added that the minerals it will mine are needed for the shift to low-carbon energy. The company also touted the project's economic benefits and said it "looks forward to engaging with the administration as the project continues to move through environmental review. We expect the regulatory review process to be fair and consistent. That process is based on science and law, and it is designed to determine whether projects like ours can meet the rigorous standards in place … ."
The company's confidence in the regulatory process stands in contrast with a new bill introduced by Minnesota Republican U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber. It would require an act of Congress to withdraw "any public land from mining" where it's permissible now.
The bill supposedly would prevent political interference in mining decisions, but its effect would be the exact opposite given the influence of wealthy special interests on elected officials. It also would upend a venerable tradition of Republican and Democratic administrations expanding buffer zones. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and the Trump administration took that step in 2018 to protect Yellowstone National Park from mining.
Stauber, whose office declined to answer an editorial writer's questions, often claims to defend "our way of life" as he campaigns or pushes policy. His bill is misguided, and he needs grasp this truth: Clean water and conservation are part of "our way of life" in Minnesota.