New Fronts in Stopping the Catastrophic Twin Metals Copper-Sulfide Mine


Photo: Bryan Hansel

Photo: Bryan Hansel

Less than a decade ago, the majority of Minnesotans did not know that the Boundary Waters and Minnesota faced an imminent threat from copper-sulfide mining. In fact, if told about proposed copper-nickel mining in the north, they were more than likely to support it.

All this has changed thanks to you.

The fight to protect the Boundary Waters from the threat of copper-sulfide mining has entered a crucial stage.

In addition to filing a new lawsuit against Twin Metals, there are several promising developments on the horizon.


By speaking with friends and family, attending public meetings, writing letters to the editor, posting on social media, and contacting legislators, you have turned the tide in the public’s understanding of the threats posed by copper-sulfide mining to the Boundary Waters. This was clearly shown in a recent poll from the Star Tribune and MPR News, which found that 60% of Minnesotans oppose new mining projects near the Boundary Waters. In northern Minnesota, which is often thought of as a stronghold of support for sulfide mining, 56% oppose these mines. In fact, only 23% of Minnesotans support these projects, a definite minority.

A misty lake in the BWCA
Photo: Carol Gaupp

Photo: Carol Gaupp

These numbers confirm what we have long known: If we stick to the facts and use science to show the dangers of copper-sulfide mining, we will keep this toxic industry away from the Boundary Waters.

We have science on our side and we have the public on our side. Let’s look at some of the political fronts for harnessing the will of the people and bringing about concrete action.


In January of this year, Congresswoman Betty McCollum introduced H.R. 5598, the Boundary Waters Wilderness Protection and Pollution Prevention Act, to permanently protect more than 234,000 acres of federal land bordering the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness from sulfide mining. This bill would ban any future copper-sulfide mining in the area, which would stop the proposed Twin Metals mine. 

Representative Betty McCollum (left) receives Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness 2018 Conservation Award from Board Chair Margo Brownell.
Representative Betty McCollum (left) receives Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness 2018 Conservation Award from Board Chair Margo Brownell.

Though met with immediate opposition from allies of the copper-sulfide mining industry, the bill has gained bipartisan support. This important legislation now has over forty co-sponsors from more than twenty states, from California to Florida.

A national movement has begun.


The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness shares a 150-mile-long border with Canada. Hydrological models show that pollution from the Twin Metals copper-sulfide mine would flow not only through the heart of the Boundary Waters, but would also pollute Canada’s Quetico Provincial Park.

Over a century ago, the United States and Canada recognized the importance of the waters shared by the two countries. The 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty between the countries provides that “waters flowing across the boundary shall not be polluted on either side to the injury of health or property of the other.”

In December of last year, at the request of Congresswoman McCollum, the House Appropriations Committee invoked the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty to direct the State Department to report on the impact of copper-sulfide mining on Canada’s Quetico Provincial Park. In response, the State Department issued an eight-paragraph report that Congresswoman McCollum described as “excellent for a grade school-level book report, but as a report to Congress it is an embarrassingly inadequate document.”

Solo canoe at dusk on a lake in the Boundary Waters.
Photo: Benjamin Olson

Photo: Benjamin Olson

The State Department’s woeful response is just another example of how the Trump administration has continually undermined science and short-circuited laws in its efforts to roll out the red carpet for international mining conglomerates. By invoking the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty, there is hope that Canadian officials will pressure the Trump administration to release scientific research that has been suppressed from the public. It is widely suspected that this research reveals the adverse effects that copper-sulfide mining near the Boundary Waters would have on waters shared by the United States and Canada.


Over two decades ago, Wisconsin passed a “prove-it-first” law with a simple, commonsense premise: before a mining company could build a copper-sulfide mine in the state, the company had to demonstrate that a copper- sulfide mine had operated elsewhere in the United States for a number of years and had been closed for a number of years without causing pollution.

This law remained in effect until 2017, when former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker led to its repeal. However, during the time that the law was in effect, it successfully prevented copper-sulfide mines from being constructed and polluting Wisconsin’s waters.

While Minnesotans are sometimes reluctant to admit that people in Wisconsin have good ideas, the Wisconsin “Prove-It-First” Law was a very good one. Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness is leading the effort to have a similar law enacted in Minnesota. After Minnesota and the rest of our country emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, watch for a movement to make “prove-it-first” the law in Minnesota.


The question is: Will these measures be successful? There are hurtles, no doubt, and some of these efforts may seem like a long shot. But the Twin Metals mine is not inevitable.

 A year ago, PolyMet — the other proposed copper-sulfide mine in Minnesota — looked like a done deal.

Though there were numerous red flags in the flawed permitting process and the Friends and our partners had several lawsuits pending, the company had received all of its permits.

The tide has turned. PolyMet — the “snow plow” that was supposed to clear the way for Twin Metals — has slid off the road and is now stuck in the mud.

Through lawsuits spearheaded by the Friends and our partners — Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, Water Legacy, Sierra Club, the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, and others — PolyMet’s future is bleaker than a gray November day.

In a landmark ruling, in January of this year, the Minnesota Court of Appeals overturned PolyMet’s permit to mine and dam-safety permits. In another extraordinary setback for the foreign mining conglomerate, in March, the Minnesota Court of Appeals threw out PolyMet’s air pollution permit. On top of all this, a seven-day hearing before a Minnesota trial court revealed the nefarious actions of Minnesota regulators who suppressed the concerns of an EPA scientist that PolyMet’s wastewater permit violated the Clear Water Act.

This trial forever exploded the myth that “Minnesota has the best environmental laws in the country,” and can protect our water resources from copper-sulfide mining. Instead, Minnesota regulators were shown to be complicit in the cover up of a deeply flawed permitting process for PolyMet.

Through the combined efforts of you and thousands of other individuals, we are winning the battle to stop PolyMet, and we will win the battle against Twin Metals. We are beating one mine, we can beat back another.

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