A Major Move Towards Protecting the Boundary Waters

Advocacy

On October 20, the Biden administration announced that it has applied for a 20-year moratorium on copper-nickel-sulfide mining on 225,000 acres of federal land surrounding the Boundary Waters.

This is a crucial move to protect the Boundary Waters from the threat of copper-sulfide mining, a type of mining that has a perfect record of pollution.

Part of this process involves the reinstatement of a prematurely canceled study into the effects of copper-nickel-sulfide mining in the Rainy River watershed in northeastern Minnesota. Initiated in the last days of the Obama administration, the two-year study into a possible 20-year mining moratorium was abruptly canceled by the Trump administration in 2018.

If you’ve ever spent time in the Boundary Waters, dipped your toes in the clean water or watched the mist rise over a lake, it’s hard to imagine anyone would risk ruining such a beautiful place.

And yet, for over a decade, Twin Metals has been trying to build and operate a toxic copper-sulfide mine at the edge of this pristine wilderness. 

Owned by the Chilean mining conglomerate, Antofagasta, Twin Metals plan would permanently pollute a water-rich environment like the Boundary Waters.

It would devastate America’s most visited Wilderness Area.

If built, that mine would tunnel under Birch Lake and the Kawishawi River, which drain directly into the Boundary Waters. The processing facility, where it would pulverize the ore to extract trace amounts of copper and other metals, would all be done within a few miles of the BWCA.

It’s not a question of if, but when this mine would pollute.

There has never been a copper mine that has not contaminated the surrounding ground water. In a water-rich environment like the Boundary Waters, the effects of the pollution would be particularly devastating, as the vast stretches of interconnected lakes and rivers would spread the pollution wide and far.

It’s all but guaranteed that Twin Metals would cause irreparable damage to the pristine wilderness and clean water.

To better understand why a possible moratorium on copper-sulfide mining on the federal lands surrounding the Boundary Waters is so important, here are seven reasons Twin Metals — and copper-sulfide mining in general — are bad for clean water, bad for Minnesota the bad for the United States.

The Boundary Waters is a national treasure we must protect. Photo: Hanna Anderson

7 ways Twin Metals’ Boundary Waters mine would be a disaster

1. Copper mining is an environmental catastrophe waiting to happen

While Minnesota has a long history of iron mining, no copper-sulfide mine has ever opened in the state. 

Copper-sulfide mining has a near perfect record of polluting surrounding water systems.

Twin Metals would produce sulfuric acid, which is the same as battery acid. As mentioned, it’s all but guaranteed that acid mine drainage would leak into the surrounding water tables and spread throughout the BWCA, contaminating some of the cleanest fresh water in the country. Simply put, given the history of copper mining, what we know about the process and all scientific evidence, clean water and copper-sulfide mining do not go together.

2. We need water more than we need copper

Water is our most precious natural resource and northern Minnesota is home to an abundant amount of clean water, which is becoming increasingly rare in the world. With major droughts sending parts of the country into a fresh water crisis, it’s more important than ever to protect our clean water, not risk it to a toxic industry.

3. Corrupt dealings

The story of Twin Metals’ mineral leases is complex, but worth understanding, as it reveals the corrupting influence Twin Metals has on our politics.

Twin Metals only has the mineral leases because they got them illegally.

In 2016, after extensive study and input from the public, the U.S. The Forest Service refused to consent to renew Twin Metals’ leases. The reason was that it was too great of a risk. A copper-sulfide mine next to the Boundary Waters could cause irreparable harm to a fragile and unique ecosystem. 

The leases were allowed to expire. 

Photo: Adam Stanzak

Shortly after this, Trump came into office and Antofagasta began a full-court press to lobby the administration and reinstate and renew the leases.

Most notoriously, the billionaire owner of Antofagasta bought a mansion in Washington DC and rented it to Jared and Ivanka Trump. Documents obtained through a FOIA request show a cozy relationship between the Trump administration and Antofagasta. This led to the Trump administration reversing the decision to let the leases expire. By reviving and renewing the leases, the administration rolled out the red carpet for a foreign-owned corporation, and disguised their illegal actions in a convoluted legal “interpretation.”

Now, the Biden administration can nullify this egregious error and right what was a clear mishandling of the law and legal process.

4. Twin Metals would contribute to climate change

Copper mining is a dirty business and would exacerbate the climate crisis.

Research published by Nature — the most prestigious group of science journals in the world — estimates that mining for primary metal and mineral production accounts for approximately 10% of the total global energy-related greenhouse gas emissions. 

Copper mining, in particular, has become increasingly fuel intensive. From 2001 to 2017 in Chile — the world’s largest copper producer — the electricity consumption per unit of mined copper increased by 32%.

Proposed copper-sulfide mining would have a significant impact on climate change

That brings us to Twin Metals.

The ore body Twin Metals seeks to tap averages a mere 0.69% copper. Because Twin Metals seek to extract this poor, low-grade ore, they will need to crush a lot of rock to get a little copper. That means the mine will require a lot of energy and hence, release a lot of CO2. 

Based on a recent study that closely looked at Twin Metals’ mine plan of operation and set this information beside the results of 23 separate studies of energy use in copper-nickel mines, we can estimate that Twin Metals will release between 450,000 and 1.2 million tons of CO2 each year.

That’s equivalent to the emissions of 89,000 to 235,000 passenger cars each year.

Further, Based on DNR’s figures on carbon sequestration in Minnesota peatland, Twin Metals would destroy 912.4 acres of peatland, and in turn, release 2.5 million tons of CO2.

5. It’s bad for the Economy

Mining is tied to precarious boom-bust cycles that result in unstable economic situations. 

Especially because of the low-grade ore and the expense of extracting it, any jobs created by Twin Metals would be vulnerable in the event of a downturn in the market. 

Research by a Harvard economist, who studied numerous possible scenarios, concluded that in almost every case, mining in the BWCA watershed would hurt the sustainable wilderness economy that depends on the BWCA and hurt the region’s economy in the long run.

6. The Need for Twin Metals is grossly overstated

Twin Metals likes to tout that their dangerous mine proposal is needed to build the green economy and lead the United States to a kind of resource independence. 

The fact is, Twin Metals is owned by a Chilean-based mining conglomerate, Antofagasta. The metals they mine would be traded and sold on an international market, likely sold to China or other major economies. 

Further, Twin Metals would not be a vital source of any of the metals they produce. They would tap into an ore body that is a very poor grade, and even at peak production, Twin Metals would produce just 0.27% of the global copper supply.

Also, in the past two decades, US copper consumption has decreased by 48%. Basically, the world does not need to risk the Boundary Waters in exchange for a relatively small amount of copper and nickel

Watch this special webinar debunking the mining industry’s exaggerated claims

7. The BWCA is a National Treasure

This is self-evident to anyone who has been there. 

The Boundary Waters is 1.1 million acres of lakes, rivers and boreal forest. With over 150,000 visitors each year, it is the most visited Wilderness Area in the United States. It’s a place that has affected the lives of tens of thousands of Americans and continues to have an impact on countless individuals.

It’s worth protecting for the water, for the forests, the people and the priceless wonder we are so fortunate to have.

Campfire, Beth Lake in the Boundary Waters Photo: Mark Tade

Want to know more?

Twin Metals’ attempt to open a toxic copper-sulfide mine at the edge of the BWCA is a story rife with corruption and backroom deals.

Most importantly, ordinary people standing up to a multi-billion dollar industry and affirming the the Boundary Waters and clean water is worth fighting for.

Read on!

THE HISTORY OF MINING NEAR THE BWCA

The current saga began in 1966, before many modern environmental laws had been passed.

That year the United States government issued two 20-year mineral leases to the Canadian mining company, International Nickel Company (INCO). Although they had access to these reserves, INCO never did more than drill exploratory wells. INCO and its successor were granted two subsequent lease renewals in 1989 and 2004, but the high expense of mining Minnesota’s low-grade copper, an uncertain global market and protests from the public, prevented them from opening a mine. However, years later, the acid mine drainage was leaking from the wells they had drilled, underscoring how toxic this type of mining is.

By the second decade of the 21st century, global copper prices were on the rise and the leases had switched hands. They were now held by Twin Metals, a subsidiary of the Chilean mining giant, Antofagasta. This foreign mining company made no secret about its plans to open a copper-sulfide mine at the edge of the Boundary Waters.

Those who traveled in the Boundary Waters, who cherished the pristine environment and clean water that is so unique to the area, were alarmed. Sulfide mining had never been done in Minnesota and the prospect of opening one of these toxic mines in a water-rich environment, less than a mile from the Boundary Waters, was alarming.

The BWCA faced an existential threat, and the fight against sulfide mining grew into one of the most intense environmental fights in Minnesota’s history.

TWIN METALS’ MINERAL LEASES

In 2014, Twin Metals’ leases were again up for renewal. After a careful study, the U.S. Forest Service concluded the potential risk posed by a sulfide mine within the same watershed as the Boundary Waters was unacceptable, as it might cause irreparable harm to a unique, iconic and irreplaceable wilderness area. Twin Metals’ application was denied and the leases expired.

This was a major victory, and it got better.

Photo courtesy of Bryan Hansel

In addition, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the U.S. Forest Service, began a study to consider whether to place a 20-year moratorium on any copper-sulfide mining on 234,000 acres adjacent to the Boundary Waters. The study area encompassed the location of the proposed Twin Metals mine.

If implemented, a 20-year ban on mining would provide the additional protection against sulfide mines necessary to protect the Boundary Waters. This, along with the expired mineral leases, made many of us believe the Boundary Waters might be safe.

TRUMP ATTACKS THE BOUNDARY WATERS

Almost immediately after Trump was elected, Antofagasta began to court the new administration.

Documents made available through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request show that months after the inauguration, Antofagasta’s CEO, Ivan Arriagada, sent a letter to then-Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke, requesting a meeting regarding the cancellation of the mineral leases and to “discuss a viable path forward with you.” On the heels of this letter, several representatives from Antofagasta traveled to Washington to meet with Department of Interior officials. 

Among the officials they sat down with was former Koch Brother employee and newly appointed Deputy Solicitor General for Department of Interior, Daniel Jorjani. Following these meetings, Jorjani wrote a legal opinion that would revive the expired leases and grant Twin Metals an automatic renewal.

According to Jorjani’s tortured reasoning — which follows a script provided by Antofagasta’s lawyers — the decision to let the leases expire was based on a supposed “legal error,” a misreading of the original terms of the contract. However, the leases are unambiguous: They did not provide an automatic right to renew.

However, as the FOIA documents show, these leases were revived after the leadership of the Department of Interior was lobbied by Antofagasta. Jorjani’s opinion was driven by a policy decision made under the influence of a Chilean-owned corporation.

As if this wasn’t outrageous enough, it was revealed that Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump rent their Washington D.C. home from the Luksic family, who owns Antofagasta.

Near the proposed Twin Metals mine site

BRINGING THE CASE TO COURT

In a little over a year, the protections won through a combination of the legal process, scientific analysis, and public input, had been steamrolled for the benefit of a foreign mining company. In response, Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, along with our partners, went to court.

Our case challenges the arbitrary nature by which the administration reversed the previous legal decision. Fundamentally, the Trump administration twisted the terms of the original contract to justify its actions and ignored other contractual terms. With evidence that the United States government short circuited procedure to do the bidding of a foreign mining company, this is more than a dispute over interpretation.

Unfortunately, Judge Trevor N. McFadden of the United States District Court for District of Columbia ruled against our challenge to the Trump administration’s revival of the two mineral leases .

This was a decision made in error.

The plain, straight-forward language of the leases makes it clear that Twin Metals is not entitled to an automatic renewal of the mineral leases. The court is giving Twin Metals a forever lease. Based on the original contract, this is an overreach that defies commonsense.

This misguided ruling is not the final word on Twin Metals’ mine, and we have appealed the case to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

CANCELING THE STUDY

The Trump administration abruptly canceled the study that would assess the impacts of sulfide mining on the Rainy River watershed. In doing so, they cancelled a look into whether there should be a 20-year mineral withdrawal on a large portion of the Superior National Forest.

Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue promised Congress to complete the study. However, less than four months away from completion, Secretary Perdue cut short the two-year study. Why did he deceive Congress and go back on his word?

Essentially, Perdue claimed that no new facts came to light, so there was no point in continuing the study. This doesn’t answer the fundamental question: What did the study find?

It’s likely the study showed results that weren’t inline with the Trump administration’s agenda. Without releasing the findings of the study, or addressing public concerns, the Trump administration tried to bury it.

Minnesota Rep. Betty McCollum (D) along with Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), and Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.) have demanded that the Department of Agriculture and the Department of the Interior turn over documents relating to the unusual steps these agencies took to advance the construction of a copper-sulfide mine at the edge of the Boundary Waters.

In the letter, which can be read here, the three chairs question the legal opinion of Deputy Solicitor Daniel Jorjani, who argued that the decision not to renew the leases was based on a legal error, specifically a misreading of the terms of the original leases. Far from being an insulated legal opinion, they note there were plenty of other factors influencing his opinion:

The background of DOI’s Principal Deputy Solicitor, Daniel Jorjani, is also a concern. Prior to issuing his convoluted and legally questionable opinion reversing the expiration of Twin Metals’ mining leases near the Boundary Waters, Jorjani made a career helping companies acquire energy resources in foreign countries. This is strikingly similar to what he is doing now: handing U.S. resources to Antofagasta, the Chilean owner of Twin Metals. Antofagasta met with Jorjani three times in the months leading up to the issuance of his opinion in December 2017.

So far, the Trump administration has fought to maintain their secrecy.

THE SITUATION NOW WITH THE BWCA

In May 2019, despite vocal opposition from former Forest Service employees, scientists, and the public at large — and despite our lawsuit making its way through the courts — the Trump administration renewed Twin Metals’ leases for another 10-year period

This was not an unexpected move. It does not mean Twin Metals will begin operations anytime soon. Its mining plan still needs to be approved by Minnesota state regulators. Before it gets to that, we believe we can stop them on the federal level

Underground mine, similar to the one Twin Metals is proposing near the Boundary Waters

Underground mine, similar to the one Twin Metals is proposing near the Boundary Waters

Twin Metals isn’t the only one.

Hundreds of prospecting permits have been filed for mineral exploration and permits near the BWCAW.

That’s why a mining moratorium in parts of the Superior National Forest bordering the Boundary Waters is so important to the future of our wilderness.

The fight against sulfide mining is a fight for the future of the Boundary Waters. It will be a long and difficult fight, but when people get organized and speak up, we can protect this precious place.

PLAN TO MINE NEAR THE BOUNDARY WATERS

Days before we were scheduled to appear in D.C. District Court to present oral arguments against the Trump administration’s illegal giveaway of federal lands near the Boundary Waters, Twin Metals released their mine plan of operations. 

This document outlines the company’s desire to build an underground mine at the doorstep of the Boundary Waters. Working with a team of experts, including geoengineers, biologists, toxicologists and geologists, we have evaluated this plan (read more about the findings here). In short it is an outline for an ecological disaster.

YOU CAN STOP COPPER-SULFIDE MINING

In the meantime, Friends of the Boundary Waters along with our allies have taken steps to further combat Twin Metals and other future copper-sulfide mining near the Boundary Waters. These include:

A FEDERAL BILL TO BAN SULFIDE MINING

Representative Betty McCollum introduced a Bill, H.R. 5598, to permanently protect 234,000 acres of federal land bordering the Boundary Waters from sulfide mining. This would include the proposed Twin Metals mine.

Though met with immediate opposition from allies of the copper-sulfide mining industry, the bill has gained bipartisan support and has 44 co-sponsors from 21 states.

PROVE-IT-FIRST LEGISLATION

In 2020, Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness introduced “Prove-It-First” legislation in Minnesota. This bill would require an applicant seeking to permit a sulfide mine in Minnesota to show that a similar mine operated elsewhere in the United States — in an environment similar to Minnesota — for at least ten years without polluting groundwater or surface water, and that the mine has been closed for at least ten years without polluting groundwater or surface water.

This powerful law would protect both the Boundary Waters and Lake Superior watersheds from the two toxic mining proposals, Twin Metals and PolyMet.

The more people learn about Prove It First, the more they support it.

Thousands of clean water advocates have banded together to lay a solid groundwork for the bill. But your voice is needed to pass this bill!

Please take a moment to contact your state legislature and tell them to support clean water. Tell them to support Prove It First.

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