Calls for "law and order" are likely to echo through Minnesota this election year. Those advocating for it ought to strongly applaud a new Biden administration move to safeguard the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness by canceling two ill-gotten leases foundational to the Twin Metals Minnesota copper mine's future.
The decision, announced Wednesday, does not ban mining in Minnesota. What it does is follow and respect the law. It does so by correcting decisions made under former President Donald Trump that favored Twin Metals but "violated" federal regulations in "at least two ways," according to a forceful, well-reasoned legal determination from the U.S. Department of the Interior.
The release of this important document should inspire outrage in all who value natural-resource stewardship. Even a cursory read of Interior's review makes it shockingly clear that mollycoddling this project became a top priority during Trump's tenure. Twin Metals is owned by Chilean-based Antofagasta, which is controlled by the billionaire Luksic family.
Under Trump, oil industry lobbyists and other dubiously qualified appointees filled key posts overseeing public lands. The new Interior analysis details one unsurprising result: shady maneuvering that put a foreign-owned company's interests over protecting the BWCA.
Among the findings: a deeply "flawed" legal memo that paved the way for the Trump administration's reinstatement, then renewal, of leases key to Twin Metals operations. The Obama administration had previously declined to renew them. But Trump officials didn't stop there. In the renewals, they departed from standard federal lease language and conditions and put in place customized terms advantageous to the firm.
One such change: granting Twin Metals "a special 'right' to another renewal."
The intent was to grease the skids for this underground mine and hobble future administrations. But the alteration violated Interior Department regulations, the legal analysis found. The Trump administration also ignored, in violation of federal law, the U.S. Forest Service's authority over federal mineral leasing decisions in Minnesota.
The lease cancellation spurred both harsh criticism from U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber, R-Minn., who claimed "political" interference, and condemnation from Twin Metals.
According to a statement from the mining company: "This not about law; this is a political action intended to stop the Twin Metals project without conducting the environmental review prescribed in law. We have proposed a world-class underground copper, nickel, cobalt and platinum group metals mine that deserves to be evaluated through the established environmental review process.
"Our proposal, submitted more than two years ago to state and federal agencies, was the culmination of more than a decade of engineering, hydrogeological, environmental and engagement work that maximize environmental protection. We are confident that a full environmental review will show that the science behind this modern mine will prove that we can advance this project safely under the highest of standards."
But the lengths to which Trump officials went to grant Twin Metals special treatment undermine the firm's claims that mining can be done safely so close to the BWCA. If the project is that good, then there was no need to bend or break rules and regulations. Nor did the Trump administration need to halt a different study of copper mining risk's to the BWCA watershed, which it did just a few months before the review's completion, then keep the findings secret.
If there's a case study in brazen political interference, it's the Trump administration's repugnant pandering to Twin Metals.
The Biden move also reflects common sense. Twin Metals lies within the BWCA watershed. Its operations would be perched on the shoreline of a lake draining directly into the beloved wilderness, providing a direct path for pollution to enter fragile waters.
As the Star Tribune Editorial Board argued in its 2019 special report "Not this mine. Not this location," there are places where it's simply too risky to mine, and this is one of them. Regrettably, the Biden administration's action falls short of being permanent protection for the BWCA watershed. For that, Congress needs to act.
Thankfully, Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., has legislation ready to go. It merits support from Minnesotans and swift passage in Congress.