Language that would have required a study of the impact of copper-nickel mining on the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness was dropped from the Department of the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations Bill this week.
It would have commissioned a report from the National Academy of Sciences "on the impacts on ecosystem services of the Superior National Forest and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness resulting from a Twin Metals sulfide-ore copper mine located in the watershed of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness" but it was removed from the final agreement by White House negotiators, a spokesperson for U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, D-St. Paul, who authored the bill, confirmed to the News Tribune Tuesday.
Twin Metals, owned by Chilean mining conglomerate Antofagasta, is hoping to build a large underground copper-nickel mine near Ely, within the Rainy River Watershed and on the edge of the BWCAW. Critics say the project could send tainted runoff into the BWCAW while supporters say the mine would bring much-needed jobs to the region.
The company is expected to file its formal mine proposal by the end of the year.
In a statement, McCollum expressed her disappointment in the study being dropped from the bill.
“I am disturbed that the White House intervened in negotiations and as a result, the agreement does not include the National Academy of Sciences study to examine the harmful impacts of sulfide-ore mining in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness," McCollum said in a statement. "That said, the Department of Agriculture and the Department of the Interior will still have to address the question of whether mining, especially copper-sulfide ore mining, is appropriate on National Forest System lands in the Rainy River Watershed.”
In a news release, U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber, R-Hermantown, celebrated the language being dropped and took credit for the bill not reaching the house floor. He said the White House, U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Otsego, and Republican leaders helped.
“In northern Minnesota, mining is a way of life. Unfortunately, the livelihoods of my constituents and the needs of this nation were completely disregarded as an attempt was made to include anti-mining language in the Interior appropriations package," Stauber said.
Opponents of copper-nickel mining in northern Minnesota expressed disappointment in the study being dropped from the bill and said it reflected the Trump administration's "anti-science agenda."
“This confirms the copper-sulfide mining industry, and their allies in the Trump administration and Congress, have a decidedly anti-science agenda," Chris Knopf, executive director of Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, said in a statement to the News Tribune. "They are pushing for a rubberstamp policy for these mines, one that ignores science and does not include a factual environmental assessment.”
In an emailed statement to the News Tribune, Twin Metals spokesperson Kathy Graul said the company is readying the project's environmental review for federal and state officials.
"That years-long process will inform the public and agencies about our project specifically better than any generic study could," Graul said. "We continue to remain opposed to language that supports a moratorium on mining in our region."
A similar environmental review started once before during the Obama administration, but was curbed and then stopped completely by the Trump administration.
In its final days, the Obama administration ordered the U.S. Forest Service, a branch of the United States Department of Agriculture, to conduct an environmental impact statement — the most-thorough level of environmental review — of the potential impacts of copper mining on the BWCAW and Superior National Forest.
During a May 2017 House Interior-Environment Appropriations Subcommittee, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue assured McCollum the USDA would not block the environmental review.
"We are absolutely allowing that to proceed. ... No decision will be made prior to the conclusion of that," Perdue said.
But by January 2018, the Forest Service announced it would not conduct an environmental impact statement and would instead conduct an environmental assessment, a less-stringent study.
And by September 2018, the Forest Service had abandoned the environmental assessment too.
A Forest Service spokesperson at the time said a "science-based analysis" with public input showed no need for further environmental studies.
"Due to what we learned over that time, we determined there was not any need to complete the process on an environmental assessment," the spokesperson said.