The contrast could not be more striking between the well-intentioned words in the formal mine plan filed this month by Twin Metals Minnesota and the reprehensible actions taken by the controversial project’s allies in the White House to shield it from scientific scrutiny. The disconnect is disturbing, and the questions it raises deepen concerns about political interference in the process to determine whether copper extraction can be done safely on the doorstep of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA).
On Dec. 18, Twin Metals, which is owned by Chilean-based Antofagasta, submitted to regulators a lengthy outline of its $1.7 billion proposal to open an underground copper-nickel mine on federal land that lies a few miles outside the BWCA but alongside a reservoir flowing into it. Approval of the project remains years away, but this is a milestone in that long process. The publicly available documents provide one of the most detailed looks at the proposal thus far.
The new plan promises a “world-class, 21st century” mine, and Twin Metals vows to be a protector of “our precious natural world.” The project, it adds, “can be a model for modern, sustainable and environmentally and socially responsible mining.” Those promises are certainly laudable. But if the project is as good as Twin Metals says, why has the Trump administration put such a high priority on shutting down a high-level scientific study of copper mining’s potential to pollute the BWCA watershed?
In September 2018, federal officials ended a Forest Service study of these risks 20 months into the effort’s 24-month time frame. Members of Congress, along with the Star Tribune Editorial Board, have repeatedly criticized that decision and have asked unsuccessfully for its completion or for the data gathered to be released.
The White House recently doubled down on the secrecy, blocking a new congressional effort to complete the study. U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., led efforts to insert language into year-end spending bills to revive the analysis. But according to McCollum’s office, the White House insisted on removal of this language during negotiations, with officials making it clear they were willing to hold up these must-pass government operations bills if they didn’t get what they wanted.
The White House declined to comment last week, but shielding the project strongly suggests that science doesn’t back up the claims that mining can be done without polluting BWCA’s delicate watery wilderness. The secrecy is also at odds with the stewardship vows expressed in the new Twin Metals mine plan. The appearance, fair or not, is that the firm is saying one thing while its allies in Washington, D.C., do another.
An editorial writer asked Twin Metals this week about the latest move to block the Forest Service study. The company said it couldn’t comment on the administration’s decision but added that federal and state processes “require a rigorous and thorough review of proposed projects to ensure that they meet all federal and state standards.” It added: “We are confident that we can advance a project that will bring significant economic development to northeast Minnesota while also meeting or exceeding all regulatory requirements.”
McCollum deserves praise for having an alternative plan to deal with the Trump administration’s shielding of the mine. Language inserted elsewhere in the year-end spending legislation will require the U.S. State Department to report on potential pollution from the project. Contaminants could flow downstream into Canadian waters, which is why that federal agency is involved. The report, if it’s done properly, may provide insights into the scientific study that the Trump administration wants so badly kept under wraps.
The Editorial Board has repeatedly sounded the alarm about Twin Metals’ risks and political interference in federal decisionmaking. The concerns culminated last month in the editorial “Not this mine. Not this location.” The year-end gamesmanship in Washington strengthens the arguments against the mine and heightens concerns about a broken regulatory process.
If the feds won’t protect the wilderness, then the state should. Gov. Tim Walz should take a strong first step in 2020 by shutting down any preparatory work by state agencies on Twin Metals review until the Forest Service study is complete.