Federal government restores mineral leases in Boundary Waters watershed

Twin Metals headquarters in Ely.
Twin Metals headquarters in Ely. (Photo by Greg Seitz, Wilderness News)

Reversing an Obama administration decision, the Bureau of Land Management has restored mineral leases to Twin Metals for areas on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The announcement means the company can continue developing a mine proposal near the South Kawishiwi River.

In December, the Department of the Interior issued a legal memo that said rejecting the leases was unlawful. This week’s action essentially erases that rejection.

“BLM will treat the reinstated leases as though the December 15, 2016, decision was never issued and the reinstated leases will remain in effect until such time as the BLM acts on the application for a third lease renewal, subject to reasonable, updated terms and conditions,” wrote Mitchell Leverette of the Bureau of Land Management.

The Obama administration had said that copper mining’s potential for pollution made it inappropriate for areas upstream of the Boundary Waters wilderness. While rejecting the leases, it also removed 234,000 acres of federal land from mineral exploration while it launched a two-year study of a long-term mining moratorium in the area.

Earlier this year, the Trump administration also announced it was curtailing that study.

Twin Metals celebrated the lease decision. The company, which is wholly owned by Chilean mining conglomerate Antofagasta PLC, had been in legal limbo. Rep. Tom Emmer had previously introduced legislation to force the lease renewals — although it passed the House of Representatives, there was little support in the Senate.

“Today’s reinstatement will also allow Twin Metals to resume environmental study and project development activities on the federal leases yet this summer Twin Metals looks forward to working with federal agencies in the coming months to complete the proper process of renewing the company’s federal leases.”

Strong reaction

Wilderness advocates responded swiftly and harshly to the lease decision.

“This assault is serious and we must fight back,” Rep. Betty McCollum wrote on Twitter. “Every Minnesotan who values these national treasures should be concerned.”

The Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters said it will challenge the decision in court.

“This decision is an immediate threat to our clean water, wildlife, public health and the strong northern economy and will not go unchallenged; reinstating these expired leases is unlawful and contrary to longstanding mineral leasing policy,” said Doug Niemela. “We intend to pursue legal actions against this decision.”

Twin Metals is still several years away from the possibility of operating a mine at the site. It envisions a large underground mine which would employ about 650 people.

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