Clean Water Act rollback could make it difficult to protect BWCAW water from mining pollution

Farm Lake, near Ely, on the edge of the BWCAW and downstream of the proposed Twin Metals mine site. (Greg Seitz)

Proposed changes by the Trump administration to how the Clean Water Act is administered would block Minnesota from enforcing special restrictions intended to protect lakes and rivers in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

In addition to being a federally-designated wilderness, the BWCAW is also a state-designated “outstanding resource value water.” Under the new proposal, federal regulations would not allow the state to enforce more restrictive regulations than the federal government.

The changes come at a critical time for Minnesota with one of the most controversial mine projects in the state’s history entering the regulatory review process.

The huge copper-nickel mine that Chilean copper mining giant Antofagasta and its Twin Metals subsidiary want to build just outside the Boundary Waters will produce 20,000 tons of ore per day.

The project could require a 401 water quality certification if it’s determined that the mine could damage water quality in the Boundary Waters, where even motorized fishing boats aren’t allowed.

Boundary Waters could feel the effects from a federal plan to change Clean Water Act, Star Tribune

Under the proposed changes, the additional level of review of impacts to the BWCAW under the 401 water quality certification would not be triggered.

The move is being defended by the Trump administration as an overdue update to the rules, meant to expedite environmental review and permitting to approve project proposals faster.

State regulators say it would make it difficult to protect resources deemed valuable by Minnesotans.

“EPA’s proposed rule would leave us unable to address potential water quality concerns in or near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness – waters within which are prohibited Outstanding Resource Value Waters,” the MPCA wrote to the Environmental Protection Agency when the changes were proposed in 2019.

The changes would also mean that state regulators could only examine pollution from single points of pollution, essentially a pipe discharging into waterways, and not look at wider, more diffused sources of pollution.

This could mean that toxic liquids and dangerous dust from the massive piles of mine tailings are not included in environmental analysis, according to Becky Rom, national chairwoman of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters.

Another part of the rule would require that projects be reviewed in a shortened time frame.

“For some projects, that might mean the certification is issued before all the science is in and before environmental review is completed,” the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency says. “The states would be forced to makes decisions on projects without sufficient information on what impact the projects would have on the environment.”

The proposed rule changes were issued in draft form last year. After receiving public comment and input from other agencies, tribal nations, and state governments, the EPA is preparing to release the final rule. The Star Tribune reports the proposal is currently being review by the White House Office of Management and Budget.

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