Federal Government Considers Rejecting Mining Rights Near the Boundary Waters

A capped drill hole and the web of access roads on Superior National Forest lands near Highway 1, southeast of Ely, in 2010. (Greg Seitz photo)
A capped drill hole and the web of access roads on Superior National Forest lands near Highway 1, southeast of Ely, in 2010. (Greg Seitz photo)

Public input is being sought starting next Monday on the possibility of cancelling leases that Chilean mining company Antofagasta would need to mine copper and nickel next to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

The U.S. Forest Service announced today that it is opening up a 30-day comment period on the question of renewing two 50-year-old leases that the Twin Metals proposal hinges on. The agency in charge of the Superior National Forest Service, including the Boundary Waters, has been asked by the Bureau of Land Management to consider whether or not it consents to mining in the area.

The Superior National Forest stated significant concerns about the prospect of such mining near rivers that flow into the wilderness.

“A final determination on consent has not been made,” a statement reads. “However, the Forest Service is deeply concerned by the location of the leases within the same watershed as the BWCAW, and by the inherent risks associated with potential copper, nickel and other sulfide mining operations within that watershed.”

Comments will be accepted from June 20 to July 20. There will also be a public hearing in Duluth on July 13. Located at the city’s convention center, large crowds are expected and it will also be live-streamed on the internet. To submit comments on the issue, email TwinMetalsLeaseInput@fs.fed.us or mail to the Superior National Forest, 8901 Grand Ave Place, Duluth, MN 55808.

The leases in question were first issued in 1966, with none of today’s environmental oversight. Antofagasta controls them now, and renewing the leases has become a key point of leverage for anti-mining groups.

Wilderness advocates hailed the Forest Service’s decision.

“This is a momentous decision for the future of the Boundary Waters Wilderness,” Paul Danicic, executive director of Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, said in a statement. “Sulfide mining has an unbroken record of polluting water across the globe. These leases represent a dire threat to the lifeblood of the BWCA, the quality of its water, and the long-term economic well-being of surrounding communities.”

In a Facebook post, the Save the Boundary Waters campaign stated, “If the Forest Service denies renewal of Twin Metals Minnesota’s expired federal mineral leases, it would be a huge step forward in our efforts to permanently protect the watershed of this beloved canoe country.”

In March, Minnesota governor Mark Dayton declared that the state would not allow any new mineral exploration on state lands in the Boundary Waters watershed. In a statement today, the governor said, “My position regarding this project and its inherent danger to the Boundary Waters remains unchanged. However, I recognize that the federal government has its own separate jurisdiction in this matter.”

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