The Fight To protect the Boundary Waters Canoe Area from copper-sulfide mining


Owned by the Chilean mining conglomerate, Antofagasta, Twin Metals is trying to open a copper-sulfide mine on the edge of the Boundary Waters, America’s most visited Wilderness Area.

If built, that mine would tunnel under Birch Lake and the Kawishawi River, which drains directly into the Boundary Waters.

The processing facility, where they would pulverize the ore to extract trace amounts of copper and other metals, and the tailings basin they would use to store tons of waste rock produced each day, would all be done at the edge of the BWCA.

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

Moose are just one of the iconic species threatened by copper mining. Photo Benjamin Olson

Moose are just one of the iconic species threatened by copper mining. Photo Benjamin Olson

There has never been a copper mine that has not polluted the surrounding ground water. In a water-rich environment like the Boundary Waters, it’s all but guaranteed that Twin Metals would cause irreparable damage to the pristine wilderness and clean water.

Efforts to protect the Boundary Waters from copper-sulfide mining have pitted advocates of clean water against the Trump administration’s habit of disregarding science, playing fast and loose with the law, stifling transparency and bending to foreign mining interests.

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.

Evidence of Acid Mine Drainage from exploratory drilling

Evidence of Acid Mine Drainage from exploratory drilling

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.

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.

Photo by Blake Edwards

Photo by Blake Edwards

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.  

Letter from Antofagasta’s CEO to Secretary Zinke

Letter from Antofagasta’s CEO to Secretary Zinke

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.

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, the story doesn’t end here.

Water polluted by sulfide mining

Water polluted by sulfide mining

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.

Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, asks why the Trump administration rolled out the red carpet for mining companies.

where the bwca is now

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

There is reason to be optimistic about our case. The arbitrary way in which the administration has catered to other special interests has not withstood scrutiny. When challenged under the Administrative Procedures Act, the Trump administration has lost about 92 percent of cases,  according to a study from New York University Law School. Fundamentally, the administration did not follow this law in renewing Twin Metals’ leases.

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.

Here are ways you can be a part of a movement:

Campfire in Boundary Waters

get involved

There are many ways you can give back to the wilderness and be the voice of the BWCAW. Learn about volunteer opportunities, stay informed by signing up for our email list, and more.

Kids in the Boundary Waters

Bring a kid into the wild

The survival of the wilderness depends on the next generation of wilderness stewards getting dirt under their nails, exploring, and falling in love with the Boundary Waters.

Cedar Canvas Canoe


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