The Biden administration dealt a serious blow Wednesday to the proposed Twin Metals copper-nickel mine in northeastern Minnesota, ordering a study that could lead to a 20-year ban on mining upstream from the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
The U.S. Forest Service filed an application with the Bureau of Land Management for a “mineral withdrawal,” which would begin with a comprehensive study of the likely environmental and other impacts of mining if it were permitted in the watershed that flows into the Boundary Waters.
“A place like the Boundary Waters should be enjoyed by and protected for everyone, not only today but for future generations,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in a statement. “Today the Biden Administration is taking an important and sensible step to ensure that we have all the science and the public input necessary to make informed decisions about how mining activities may impact this special place.”
The Obama administration tried to kill the Twin Metals project when it launched a similar process in its final weeks, citing the potential threat to the Boundary Waters from acid mine drainage from the underground mine near Ely.
But the Trump administration cancelled that mineral withdrawal study 20 months into the 24-month process, and reinstated the project’s federal mineral rights leases, which the Obama administration had decided not to renew.
The full practical impact of the new decision on the Twin Metals project wasn’t immediately clear. The announcement from the Agriculture and Interior Departments said the order affects lands upstream from the Boundary Waters in the Superior National Forest. It prohibits issuing new prospecting permits or leases for mining-related activities in that area. The agencies said it does not affect valid existing rights or activities on private lands including Twin Metals leases in the area, although they are currently the subject of a federal court challenge.
“Twin Metals Minnesota is deeply disappointed with the federal government’s action to initiate a mineral withdrawal study yet again on nearly 230,000 acres of land in northeast Minnesota, which sits on top of the world’s largest known undeveloped copper-nickel deposit,” the company said in statement. “We are working to determine the best path forward to continue advancing our proposed world-class underground copper, nickel, cobalt and platinum group metals mine.”
When Twin Metals, which is owned by the Chilean mining giant Antofagasta, submitted its formal mine plan to federal and state regulators in 2019, the company said its design would prevent any acid drainage and protect the wilderness from pollution.
Environmental groups disputed that claim and challenged the lease renewals in federal court, in a case that’s still pending. They welcomed the announcement.
“This is a great first step on the pathway to permanent protection,” Becky Rom, national chair of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, said in a statement. The appropriate next step for the administration is to revoke the two Twin Metals leases that the Trump administration unlawfully reinstated.”