For more than a century, mining firms have beaten back attempts to reform an obsolete 1872 law that was designed to spur settlement in Western states but instead has long maximized industry profits from public lands.
It’s rare for environmental advocacy groups to notch a victory against this wealthy special interest. Yet this week, the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters led by Becky Rom of northern Minnesota did just that. On Thursday, two federal agencies announced a “withhold” on the renewal of mineral leases sought by Chilean-owned Twin Metals Minnesota on federal land close to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA). Federal officials also went far beyond protecting those parcels and have applied to create a new 234,000-acre mining-free buffer zone in the region for the next 20 years.
It is a stunning achievement for Rom, an attorney who grew up near Ely and led the charge to block Twin Metals’ lease renewal. But caution is warranted in assessing this accomplishment. How Rom and her group accomplished their goal may have unintended negative consequences — ones that could potentially leave the BWCA and other environmental jewels more vulnerable to political pressure from industry in the future, especially under President-elect Donald Trump.
To be clear, the Star Tribune Editorial Board has long shared Rom’s doubts that copper mining — the Twin Metals project’s main focus — can be done safely and responsibly just a few miles from the BWCA. This type of hard-rock mining can result in acid drainage into nearby waterways. In addition, the mining industry has an atrocious environmental track record.
Where we respectfully part ways with the Save the Boundary Waters group is where and how a decision is made on the project’s fate.
Our view is that a consistent, data-based regulatory framework offers the best assurances that science, not politics, will dictate the outcome. The traditional process by which projects like Twin Metals are weighed kicks into high gear when formal plans for a specific site, along with detailed pollution mitigation plans, can be analyzed. This intensive environmental review is usually a multiyear process involving multiple state and federal agencies. For example, the review process for PolyMet, another proposed copper mine in northeastern Minnesota, has taken more than eight years.
In contrast, the strategy employed by Rom’s group relied on pressuring the Obama administration to dig up an additional hurdle for the project at a far earlier stage in the project — renewal of the mineral leases sought by Twin Metals, a process that typically has been routine.
The decision to block the lease was not based on deep evaluations of detailed plans for Twin Metals operation or pollution mitigation. The reason: The project isn’t far enough along yet for these plans to be that detailed. Instead, federal officials made generalized assumptions from scientific literature about the project and its location.
While this strategy yielded a worthy result — protecting the BWCA — it nevertheless created a precedent for political interference in this review and other mining projects’ evaluations. That works with an environmentally conscious President Obama in the White House. It may backfire with a more industry-friendly President Trump.
Federal officials declined to comment on whether the Trump administration could overturn the recent decision. But experts contacted by an editorial writer agreed that it could be done, though it might take some time. A spokesman for Rom’s group said Thursday that the group is hopeful this won’t occur, pointing out that Trump’s sons are conservationists and that the president-elect’s pick to head the Department of Interior has publicly recognized the need to protect unique natural resources.
At the same time, Twin Metals’ Chilean parent company, Antofagasta, invested about $350 million into this venture. Its billionaire owners, the Luksic family, won’t simply accept this outcome. It’s naïve to think they won’t find a sympathetic ear in the U.S. billionaire soon settling in the White House.