With former Vice President Walter Mondale's passing, Minnesota lost not only a statesman but one of its foremost conservationists.
Mondale, who died April 19, wielded his influence in office and afterward to keep the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA) and the nation's waterways clean and pristine for future generations to enjoy.
It's up to Minnesota's next generation of elected leaders to fill this void. A recent strong, clear call by U.S. Sen. Tina Smith for completion of an aborted scientific study of mining's risks to the BWCA watershed is a hopeful sign.
Smith's timely leadership reflects the importance that Minnesotans put on safeguarding the watery northern Minnesota wilderness from potential mining pollution. It also honors Mondale's environmental protection legacy and suggests that that this vital work will not flag in his absence.
Minnesota's senior senator, Amy Klobuchar, regrettably didn't sign on to Smith's letter, but her office said in a statement that she wants a "thorough environmental review of all the project's potential impacts."
In late 2019, a Star Tribune Editorial Board special report spotlighted the risky location of Twin Metals Minnesota's proposed underground copper mine project. The mine, which is still years away from becoming a reality, would be built on the doorstep of the federally protected wilderness and aboveground operations would hug the shoreline of a lake that drains directly into the BWCA watershed.
The report, "Not This Mine. Not This Location," also outlined maneuvering by the Trump administration to speed the project's approval. One particularly dubious example: halting a nearly completed two-year review of copper mining's risks, and then keeping the results a secret despite requests to make them public from congressional representatives and the Editorial Board.
A March 26 letter from Smith to the Biden administration makes an eminently sensible request. She asks that it move forward in determining whether the copper and other precious metals "can be safely mined in the Rainy River Watershed in northeastern Minnesota and whether watershed protections are warranted." Smith estimated that a new study could be completed in less than two years given the prior work done on it.
Smith's leadership on this is important and reflects the concerns of the majority of Minnesotans. A 2020 Star Tribune/Minnesota Public Radio poll found "Minnesota voters overwhelmingly oppose new mining near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness." Completing the halted analysis also would provide the scientific and economic underpinnings necessary to make informed decisions on mining in the BWCA watershed.
Based on the findings, the Biden administration could declare a 20-year mining moratorium on the public lands the mine would operate on. Congress also could permanently protect the watershed from mining, and Minnesota Rep. Betty McCollum merits praise for introducing a bill to do so. There's a recent precedent: In 2019, legislation cleared both chambers to permanently protect land in Washington state and near Yellowstone National Park from metal mining.
Asked for comment on Smith's letter, Chilean-owned Twin Metals said that the metals it would mine are needed to transition to zero-carbon energy technology. It also said that the "project is currently undergoing two separate environmental review processes at the state and federal level. The only way to accurately assess the potential impacts of a mining project and its surroundings is through this rigorous, law- and science-based regulatory review process. Imposing an additional and nonspecific study when there is already a detailed, data informed proposal in place for Twin Metals would undermine trust in science and our regulatory system and have a chilling effect on investment in Minnesota's rural economies."
In interviews and exchanges, Twin Metals has consistently touted modern technology's ability to protect the BWCA from potential pollution. It should have nothing to fear, then, from completing the study halted by its Trump administration allies.