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Biden Deals Blow to Proposed Minnesota Mining Project (2)

Oct. 20, 2021, 3:42 PMUpdated: Oct. 20, 2021, 4:46 PM

The Biden administration on Wednesday announced a new environmental review of a proposed mine near a popular national wilderness area in Minnesota.

The decision, announced by the Interior and Agriculture departments, kickstarts the process for a potential 20-year withdrawal of federal lands from mining around the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northeastern Minnesota. It would implement a two-year ban on new prospecting permits and leases in the region near the protected wilderness.

The environmental analysis also would pose another obstacle for Twin Metals, the mining company that has sought for more than a decade to move forward on mineral rights leases to build the mine just outside of Boundary Waters. Opponents of the project, which would be located within the watershed of the Boundary Waters, have said that the mine would contaminate and pollute the iconic wilderness area.

The administration’s move Wednesday starts the process of a potential withdrawal of 225,378 acres of federal lands and waters within the Rainy River Watershed from new mineral leasing. The Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management both have jurisdiction over the issue.

“The two-year segregation of lands initiated by today’s announcement in the Federal Register prohibits the issuance of new prospecting permits or leases for mining related activities but does not affect valid existing rights or activities on private lands,” said a joint release from departments of Interior and Agriculture. “Separately, there are two leases within the proposed withdrawal area associated with the proposed Twin Metals Mine that are currently in litigation.”

The Biden administration is the latest to weigh in on Boundary Waters, which has resulted in victories and defeats for both sides. In May, a federal judge rejected a lawsuit filed by opponents seeking to invalidate the mineral rights leases. The Trump administration reinstated the leases Twin Metals needed in 2019, after the Obama administration declined to renew them in 2016.

Congressional Democrats and Republicans have sought to legislate the issue, through stand-alone bills and policy riders on annual government funding bills. The fiscal 2022 House Interior-EPA spending bill (H.R. 4502) would ban funds in the legislation from being spent on the mine proposal.

Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) has introduced a bill (H.R. 2794) that would permanently withdraw federal lands and waters in the area from mining.

“Today’s action by the Biden administration is a welcome return to the science-based decision making that should govern the management of our public lands,” McCollum said in a statement. “After years of broken promises and ongoing obstruction of taxpayer-funded data from the prior administration, I am pleased that President Biden is committed to completing the necessary analysis to understand the impacts that sulfide-ore mining could have on this priceless reserve of fresh water, the biodiverse habitat it supports, and the economic livelihood of the surrounding community.”

Earthjustice, which represents clients in the lawsuit related to Twin Metals, also praised the administration’s decision. “The Boundary Waters is more than protected wilderness,” said Earthjustice Senior Legislative Representative Blaine Miller-McFeeley, in a statement. “It is the lifeblood of the local economy, supports countless jobs, is an important source of drinking water, a vital habitat for a variety of species, and gives visitors the opportunity to appreciate the serenity and awe of one of the last truly wild places on earth.”

But House Republicans, including Natural Resources ranking member Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) and Rep. Pete Stauber (R-Minn.), said the administration’s decision was effectively a backdoor way to shutter the project. Proponents of the mine have said it would create much-needed jobs in the area.

“With the stroke of a pen, the Biden administration threatens years of hard work and hundreds of jobs in a desperate attempt to kowtow to radical environmental interests instead of allowing a fair review of the proposed project,” Westerman said in a statement.

The Republican also pointed to the need for critical minerals for all kinds of technology, including for electric vehicles.

“Those minerals don’t just appear out of nowhere; if we don’t mine them here at home, they come from mines controlled by our geopolitical adversaries,” Westerman said. “American industries invest decades of research and reviews into safe, sustainable mining projects, yet the Biden administration prefers to send our jobs and business to countries like China.”

Twin Metals said the company is “deeply disappointed” with the administration’s announced review, noting the land “sits on top of the world’s largest known undeveloped copper-nickel deposit.”

“We are working to determine the best path forward to continue advancing our proposed world-class underground copper, nickel, cobalt and platinum group metals mine,” the company said in a statement. “We are firmly dedicated to the communities of northeast Minnesota and to advancing a sustainable mining project that will bring much-needed economic growth to our region, in addition to the opportunity to responsibly develop the critical minerals needed for our global efforts in combating the climate crisis.”

(Updated with additional comment from Westerman, Twin Metals and Earthjustice.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Kellie Lunney in Washington at klunney@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Zachary Sherwood at zsherwood@bgov.com; Giuseppe Macri at gmacri@bgov.com

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