Fires in the Amazon, the planet at risk
Hold off on anti-mining hysteria until the facts are in
Mike Dombeck, former head of the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM), thinks the case is - or should be - closed on Twin Metals Minnesota's (TMM) proposal to build an underground copper-nickel mine in northeastern Minnesota. The mine would be in a wooded area outside both the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and its legally designated mining buffer zone.
It's both interesting and dismaying that a career regulator would hold such a view without a formal study of the evidence - which he couldn't have done because TMM has yet to file a proposal for its mine, which by law would lay out exactly what the company plans to do, including its strategy for preventing the kind of environmental damage Mr. Dombeck fears.
Until that evidence is presented, risk-based arguments against the proposed mine are speculation, nothing more. As the lawyers say, if you don't have the law argue the facts. If you don't have the facts argue the law. And if you have neither, hammer the table. That's exactly what Dombeck did. So have others opposed to the mine proposal.
U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber, the first-term Republican who represents Minnesota's 8th District, where the mine site is actually located, strongly supports a comprehensive review of the proposal. So does his predecessor, Rick Nolan, a Democrat who in the 1970s co-sponsored the legislation that designated the 1.09-million acre Boundary Waters a wilderness. That meant no mine can ever be built there, including the one in question, which would be about five miles outside the BWCAW on land long managed for multiple use, including mining (the site is actually adjacent to an active quarry). Both men believe in the vigorous, science- and law-based regulatory review process long followed by federal and state agencies.
Copper-nickel mining has been dreamed of and damned in northern Minnesota, which lost thousands of iron-mining jobs since the 1980s, for as long as I can remember. And I grew up here a lot of decades ago. What's got Dombeck and others inflamed right now is that both of Dombeck's former employers, the BLM and the Forest Service, agreed on May 15 to renew TMM's long-standing mineral leases. That's a necessary first step toward permitting a mine, but hardly the last one.
In fact, the regulatory review process will take many years. Most believe no shovel would be turned for the TMM before 2025 at the earliest. That's one sign of how genuinely complex the process would be to fairly and deeply scrutinize factors such as impact on water and air quality, drinking water supply, wetlands, generation and storage of waste, endangered species, plant life and cultural resources.
Sometime in the coming months, when the company submits its formal mine plan, we'll have something actually on the table, totaling hundreds of pages, to discuss and debate at length. It will be a far longer, more detailed document than the opinions of Dombeck and other critics.
We have well established and thorough processes for big decisions like these. They shouldn't be tossed out the window when they're needed most.
Frank Ongaro is executive director of Mining Minnesota, a mining industry association that includes Twin Metals Minnesota. Follow them on Twitter @MiningMinn