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Biden halts new mining near BWCA for 20 years

by Jimmy Lovrien

Duluth News-Tribune

The Biden administration will ban new mining on federal land within the same watershed as the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness for the next 20 years.

Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland signed a public land order Thursday preventing new mineral leases on 225,500 acres of the Superior National Forest in Northeastern Minnesota. Mining is already banned in the BWCAW, but there has long been concern that copper-nickel mines, if built in the Rainy River Watershed surrounding the wilderness area, would send toxic runoff into the downstream BWCAW.

The move comes after the Forest Service released a study in June that said hardrock mining within the watershed would pose an environmental risk to the BWCAW.

“The Department of the Interior takes seriously our obligations to steward public lands and waters on behalf of all Americans. Protecting a place like Boundary Waters is key to supporting the health of the watershed and its surrounding wildlife, upholding our Tribal trust and treaty responsibilities, and boosting the local recreation economy,” Haaland said in a news release Thursday. “With an eye toward protecting this special place for future generations, I have made this decision using the best-available science and extensive public input.”

The decision is expected to anger pro-mining advocates, who say the industry would bring much-needed jobs to the region, could be done safely and want the projects to be reviewed individually rather than rejected through a blanket ban on mining.

The Biden administration has long signaled its intention to restrict mining within the Rainy River Watershed, returning to Obama-era restrictions that effectively killed the proposed Twin Metals copper-nickel mine but were subsequently reversed by the Trump administration.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who also served in that role in the Obama administration when it made the same mineral lease rejections and mineral withdrawal decisions in 2016, praised Haaland’s decision, saying it will “protect the long-term health of the Rainy River Watershed, including the irreplaceable Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.”

“This landscape is an international resource renowned for its multitude of recreational opportunities and provides millions of visitors with unparalleled wilderness experiences,” Vilsack said in the news release.

The U.S. Interior and Agriculture departments in October 2021 announced they would not allow new federal mineral leases within 225,500 acres of the Rainy River Watershed, which is shared with the BWCAW for two years with the possibility of extending it to a 20-year withdrawal .

The next day, the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management said it would deny an application for a third federal mineral lease and a batch of prospecting permits for Twin Metals, which has been trying to open an underground copper-nickel mine, processing plant and dry-stacked tailings storage facility on the edge of Birch Lake, which flows into the Kawishiwi River and then the BWCAW. Thursday’s decision further scuttles Twin Metals’ plans.

But the company, a subsidiary of Chilean mining giant Antofagasta, sued the Biden administration in August in an attempt to regain its mineral leases canceled by the administration earlier that year.

The mineral withdrawal will not affect “valid existing rights” within the area and the move will not impact existing iron ore mines.

Asked about what would happen if the company’s lawsuit was successful and it won its mineral leases back, an Interior Department official declined to comment on ongoing litigation, saying only that there was no pending application for leases or a mine plant of operation in the withdrawal area. The official noted the Bureau of Land Management had already rejected the company’s proposed mine plan of operation for underground mining operations.

U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber, R-Minn., and other pro-mining advocates have said Biden is hypocritical for signaling he would support mining minerals needed for electric vehicles and critical minerals domestically but also signing deals to source those minerals and actively seeking to delay domestic projects like Twin Metals.

With Republicans in control of the U.S. House, Stauber is chair of the Natural Resources Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee.

“Today is an attack on our way of life. Joe Biden banned mining in 225,000 acres of Minnesota’s Iron Range, and locked up development of taconite, copper, nickel, cobalt, platinum-group elements, and more,” said Stauber. “Unfortunately, this harm to our country and our future has become the norm, as this President’s goal is to put America last. Not even one month ago, Joe Biden signed an agreement to fund mining projects in Chinese-owned mines in the Congo, where over 40,000 children work as slaves in forced labor and inhumane conditions with no environmental protections. Meanwhile today’s mining ban nullifies a Project Labor Agreement with the local building and construction trade unions. America needs to develop our vast mineral wealth, right here at home, with high-wage, union protected jobs instead of continuing to send American taxpayer dollars to countries like the Congo that use child slave labor. The only winner here is China, as Joe Biden continues to hand our foreign adversaries every advantage possible. I can assure you that this Administration, from the President to the Forest Service, to the Interior Department, will answer for the pain they elected to cause my constituents today.”

In December, Stauber told Fox News that his subcommittee will investigate the Biden administration’s mining policies.

“We are not only going to legislate, but we’re going to have oversight,” Stauber told Fox News. “We want to know why this administration continues to not allow mining in the United States. We want to know why they’ve pulled federal permits without allowing an environmental impact statement to move forward.”

An Interior official on Thursday noted the Biden administration is spending billions to establish a critical mineral supply chain, but said it should not come at the expense of the environment. The BWCAW is “irreplaceable,” the official said.

“Both the president and the secretary have been clear that this administration supports responsible mining to develop critical minerals where those projects don’t pose unacceptable impacts to communities or the environment,” the official said.

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