Last week the Department of Interior and the Department of Agriculture declined to renew a lease for a copper-nickel mine near Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness over concerns that the mine could contaminate the area’s network of lakes, streams, and wetlands.
Twin Metals Minnesota, an offshoot of one of the world’s largest mining firms, applied to renew two leases in the national forest near Ely, Minnesota back in 2012 with the intent to develop a mine in the area. The leases were first issued by the government in 1966 and were most recently renewed by Twin Metals in 2004.
This summer, government officials held two listening sessions in Minnesota on whether or not to renew the leases and received more than 30,000 comments on the matter. Both Gov. Mark Dayton (D) and former vice president Walter Mondale of Minnesota came out against the renewal. Twin Metal then sued the government in federal court in September, anticipating that the leases would be rejected at the next renewal.
Environmentalists charged that the leases were granted before the federal government had established modern regulatory review standards for areas like the Boundary Waters. They also stated that pollution from the mine would not only endanger the wilderness but also the tens of millions of dollars each year generated from tourism. Twin Metals argued back, saying that they could mine safely with no danger to the wilderness and create hundreds of jobs in the region.
The Forest Service oversees the surface land in the Boundary Waters, monitoring water quality, fish and wildlife protections, and environmental impacts associated with mineral development. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), an agency within the Department of the Interior, controls the minerals underneath the land. Due to the Forest Service‘s opposition to the leases, the BLM refused to renew them. The Forest Service has also asked the Bureau of Land Management to ban mining for up to 20 years on the 234,000 acres of national forest, including the contested land that Twin Metals had previously leased. The bureau plans to block all mineral extraction for the next two years while it studies whether or not to impose an even longer ban.
The Boundary Waters is the sole lake-land wilderness in the National Wilderness Preservation System. Its 1.09-million-acres are a national treasure abundant with over 1,000 lakes from retreating glaciers, diverse wildlife, and a grid of forests and waterways.