Dayton Opposes Copper Mining in Boundary Waters Watershed

Exploratory drilling near the South Kawishiwi River
Exploratory drilling near the South Kawishiwi River (Photo by Greg Seitz)

Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton is halting new leases of mineral rights on state lands near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. He announced the decision in a March 6 letter (PDF) to Twin Metals, the company seeking to open a massive copper-nickel mine on the South Kawishiwi River, just a few miles from the edge of the wilderness.

Dayton called the BWCAW a “crown jewel in Minnesota and a national treasure” and said he has an “obligation to ensure it is not diminished in any way.” For those reasons, he said he has instructed the state Department of Natural Resources not to allow any more mining or mineral exploration activities on state lands in the area.

“His letter will go down as one of the strongest statements of conservation leadership by a Governor in Minnesota history,” said Paul Danicic, executive director of the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness. The group also called for federal officials, primarily the Bureau of Land Management, to take a similar step and stop mineral leasing on federal lands.

Neither Twin Metals nor its parent company, Chilean conglomerate Antofagasta PLC, has yet commented substantively on the statement, but the leader of a pro-mining industry group blasted the announcement.

“This calls into serious question the governor and the state honoring contractual agreements of state mineral leases that one company or a variety of companies already have and are paying money for rent on those leases to the state of Minnesota,” Frank Ongaro, director of Mining Minnesota, told Minnesota Public Radio News.

The Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, which is promoting a petition to block all mining in the Boundary Waters watershed, also welcomed the news.

“This is a clear signal that the lands near the Boundary Waters Wilderness should be off limits to sulfide-ore mining,” said Becky Rom, National Campaign Chair. “I’d like to thank the Governor for his strong leadership on this issue.”

Twin Metals is years away from possible operation. It has previously proposed an underground mine that would cost about $2.8 billion for initial construction. The company is working on its plan and has previously stated it would seek to begin environmental review in 2018.

According to the company, the mine would create 850 full-time jobs when the mine in operation, and require approximately 12 million hours of labor during three years of construction. This potential economic impact is what angered pro-mining politicians.

“Today’s letter from Governor Dayton begs the question: Does he believe mining is a part of Minnesota’s future? This is another unfortunate instance of Governor Dayton injecting himself into a process executed by his own state agencies, and unnecessarily putting up roadblocks and delays for job creation in northern Minnesota,” Rep. Tom Hackbarth, R-Cedar, told the Pioneer Press.

The BLM will soon announce whether or not it will require environmental review of Twin Metals’ federal mineral leases.

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