Forest Service steps back on mining ban

Trump Administration changes course, will seek less-comprehensive environmental assessment

by Tom Coombe
Proponents of copper-nickel mining scored the latest in a series of victories last week when the U.S. Forest Service reversed course and announced it would not proceed with a comprehensive environmental review sought by anti-mining forces.
In a Jan. 26 announcement, the Forest Service said it would conduct an environmental assessment of the possible impacts of copper-nickel mining on the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
The Trump Administration decision rolled back an 11th-hour edict by the Obama Administration that called for a more thorough environmental impact statement.
It also comes on the heels of a December decision that restored mineral leases that are pivotal to the development of the proposed Twin Metals copper-nickel mining project near Ely.
In a news release announcing the decision, Forest Service officials indicated that if analysis reveals significant environmental impacts, the agency then would proceed with the environmental impact statement.
“This decision lives up to the USDA Forest Service’s commitment to conduct a thorough environmental analysis of the Rainy River watershed, within the two year period, that relies on sound science and fully engages the public,” said USDA Forest Service Eastern Regional Forester Kathleen Atkinson.
The decision comes as the Forest Serivce proceeds with a review of a plan to withdraw more than 234,000 acres of national forest land in Northeastern Minnesota from mining development.
Some of those lands are vital to proposed copper-nickel mining projects in the region, including the Twin Metals project.
The withdrawal could lead to a 20-year mining ban on the affected lands, but if the Forest Service does not authorize the withdrawal, mining exploration could resume there next year.
According to the Forest Service, it received more than 90,000 comments during a 210-day public comment period on the proposed withdrawal.
The Forest Service indicated it received comments representing “the full range of public sentiment, from strong support to strong opposition.”
The Forest Service will accept public comment through the end of the month, and comments received will be considered in the development of the environmental assessment.
“While the science indicates significant environmental impacts are unlikely to result from the proposed withdrawal, I am deeply aware of the controversy regarding socio-economic implications,” said Superior National Forest Supervisor Connie Cummins. “Our specialists are working hard to ensure the EA accurately describes all the facts of the proposal, to aid the Secretary of the Interior in his decision.”
In its news release, the Forest Service laid out its process for moving forward, including “using the information received in comments along with a review of environmental, social and economic information to prepare the EA.”
The federal Bureau of Land Management will determine if there is a Finding of No Significant Impact.
The environmental assessment is scheduled to be completed in the fall, and will be used by the BLM to make a recommendation to the Secretary of Interior on the proposed mining withdrawal. The Secretary of Interior will make the final decision.
The Forest Service decision was welcomed by mining advocates, including U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, who termed it “sensible and correct, based on facts and science.”
Gov. Mark Dayton took an opposing view.
Dayton, who blocked Twin Metals from accessing state lands nearly two years ago and has become a vocal opponent of the project, blasted the Trump Administration and charged it was putting the interests of Chilean mining conglomerate Antofagasta, which owns Twin Metals, ahead of protecting the BWCAW.
“I urge the administration to disclose who persuaded it to steamroll responsible review and protection of this priceless natural resource in favor of copper-nickel mining profits,” Dayton said in a statement released last week.
The decision is the latest pressure point in an issue that has polarized opposing factions in a increasingly divisive debate.
The decision by the Obama Administration to reject Twin Metals’ leases and seek the mining withdrawal prompted an outcry from mining advocates, who turned out at public hearings and dominated an public comment event held in Virginia last summer.
Those who supported the mining ban, however, contend that proposed copper-nickel mining projects are too risky in the region’s water-rich environment and will lead to damage that could ruin the nearby wilderness and destroy segments of the regional economy.