Feds block northern Minnesota mining project

Feds block northern Minnesota mining project
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Federal regulators have rejected a company's leases for copper and nickel mining in northern Minnesota, saying production there poses a risk to a federal wilderness area in the region. 

The Department of Interior also said it would consider removing a large swath of land from the federal mineral leasing program. Such a step would be a major victory for Minnesota environmentalists, but a blow to the state’s burgeoning precious metals industry. 

Thursday’s decision is the latest in a string of announcements from the Obama administration designed to block resources development on some federal land. 

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Last month, Interior officials canceled oil drilling leases near tribal land in Montana, blocked gold mining near Yellowstone National Park and prohibited offshore drilling lease sales through 2022 in the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans.

Regulators on Thursday rejected a request from a company called Twin Metals that had asked federal officials to renew its long-held lease on land it hopes to someday mine for copper and nickel.

Environmentalists argue the precious metal mining process threatens the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA), and had asked officials to reject the request. 

The Forest Service did so Thursday, saying the process poses “a significant environmental risk at sulfide ore mine sites like the one proposed for these leased lands.”

Interior Department officials will also consider whether to remove portions of the region from the federal mineral leasing program for up to 20 years, effectively blocking future mining there. A decision on that question will come within two years, or well after President-elect Trump takes office. 

“The Boundary Waters is a natural treasure, special to the 150,000 who canoe, fish, and recreate there each year, and is the economic life blood to local business that depend on a pristine natural resource,” Agriculture Secretary Tom VilsackThomas James VilsackUSDA: Farm-to-school programs help schools serve healthier meals OVERNIGHT MONEY: House poised to pass debt-ceiling bill MORE said in a Thursday statement. 

“I have asked Interior to take a time out, conduct a careful environmental analysis and engage the public on whether future mining should be authorized on any federal land next door to the Boundary Waters.”

Minnesota is home to a large iron ore mining industry, but it has never produced copper and nickel, which are extracted using a different mining process that some say poses a threat to water supplies. 

A separate copper and nickel mining project is set to move forward in the state, but Twin Metals’ proposal was significantly larger and located closer to the BWCA watershed.

Thursday’s decision is “a strong first step, but there is still a lot of work to do to ensure we can protect the BWCA for future generations,” said Becky Rom, an activist who lead the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters. 

“Our coalition keeps growing as sportsmen, veterans, businesses and other interests sign on to support our efforts.”

Environmentalists and key Minnesota Democrats, including Gov. Mark Dayton, former Vice President Walter Mondale and Rep. Betty McCollum, urged regulators to reject the lease renewal request.

“Today's decision to halt the current threat of dangerous, environmentally risky sulfide-ore copper mining is a major victory for our state and our environment,” McCollum said in a statement.

Precious metal mining has divided Democrats in the state, with members from the mineral-rich region insisting the process can be done safely while creating jobs. 

Twin Metals had said its project would employ 850 people and that its mine could operate for up to 30 years.

“Minnesota’s Iron Range got a real slap in the face and a punch in the gut by Washington bureaucrats this morning,” Rep. Rick Nolan (D-Minn.), who represents the area, said in a statement. 

“We must protect our environment – the BWCA in particular – but we should never be afraid of exploration and discovery, or using science and facts to dictate important decisions. … We intend to work in the next Congress with the new administration to ensure that we allow all mining initiatives to proceed through the proper rigorous and thorough process, using science, facts and technology to guide our decisions.” 

—Updated at 1:36 p.m.