Lawmakers on Wednesday questioned the Trump administration’s termination of an environmental study on the impacts of copper-nickel mining near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness initiated in the final days of the Obama administration.
In a hearing before the Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, U.S. Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-California, asked Chris French, deputy chief of the National Forest System, why Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue went “back on his word” when the agency abruptly canceled the study in September 2018. Perdue had told Rep. Betty McCollum, D-St. Paul, in May 2017 that “We are absolutely allowing that (study) to proceed. … No decision will be made prior to the conclusion of that.”
French said that Perdue did review the material in from the study, which has still not been made public, but that Perdue had decided environmental reviews of specific mines was better than a broad study that considered the industry as a whole.
“The secretary determined through the process that a case-by-case approach was the right approach to look at the effects of the Twin Metals leases in the Boundary Waters area and that determination is essentially the process that we’ve been following,” French said.
When the mineral withdrawal and environmental study ended in 2018, a U.S. Forest Service spokesperson said in an email to the News Tribune that the environmental assessment will not be completed because 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 at the time.
Lowenthal, after reading that statement to French, said it was “curious” that nothing new was discovered, and asked if the study had instead yielded results that differed from the Department of Agriculture under President Barack Obama, which had argued science showed copper-nickel mining posed a threat to the BWCAW.
French again said studying the effects of a copper-nickel mine on the BWCAW was best done on a “case-by-case basis.”
The questioning came in a hearing for McCollum’s Boundary Waters Wilderness Protection and Pollution Prevention Act, or H.R. 5598, which would permanently ban copper-nickel mining in 234,000 acres of the Superior National Forest and the Rainy River watershed, the watershed where the BWCAW is located. The bill, if signed into law, would kill the proposed Twin Metals mine near the BWCAW.
In his opening statement, Thomas Tidwell, former chief of the U.S. Forest Service under Obama, spoke in favor of the bill. He argued, as he had when proposing the mining ban under Obama, that the remoteness of the wilderness area would make cleanup of any pollution difficult.
He also took issue with the Trump’s administration's cancellation of the environmental review and the secrecy surrounding it.
"If this review had truly suggested that sulfide-ore copper mining does not threaten the Boundary Waters, then I would assume they would've simply have completed and released the study," Tidwell said.
Rep. Pete Stauber, R-Hermantown, who represents the district containing all of the BWCAW and Superior National Forest, called the Obama’s administration mineral withdrawal and Twin Metals lease cancellation a political move.
“It was, in my opinion, purely partisan and purely political,” Stauber said.
He asked if French shared that view, but French said only that Stauber's timeline of the events was correct.
A watershed-wide ban or case-by-case study?
While opponents of copper-nickel mining maintain a ban throughout all of the Rainy River watershed is necessary because, as they argue, that type of mining presents too great of risk to the BWCAW, supporters say banning it outright denies Twin Metals and other future projects a fair shot at an environmental review.
Jason George, business manager of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 49, a union which would help build Twin Metals if it is approved, spoke against the ban and in favor of mining. He said that each mine would still need to pass individual environmental reviews.
“Let’s give them an opportunity to study an actual project and look at the science before we just make determinations,” George said.
U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Otsego, said the bill would prevent that.
“Unfortunately, the bill before this committee ignores and would effectively end the scientific study of this study,” Emmer said. “This flies in the face of our existing environmental protection rules.”
Others testifying at the hearing spoke in favor of the ban.
Jason Zabokrtsky, owner of Ely Outfitting Company, said that pollution from a mine would be “devastating” to his business, other businesses in his community and the BWCAW as a whole.
“We’ve never done this before in Minnesota,” Zabokrtsky said. “The risks of sulfide-ore copper mining are just too great and we can’t do it here.”