Energy & Environment

Forest Service finds mining would pose risk to Minnesota watershed

Associated Press/Steve Karnowski

A federal study released Thursday determined that hardrock mining in a Minnesota wilderness area would risk contaminating the region. 

In its assessment, the U.S. Forest Service said copper-nickel mining would pose a major risk to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. While the assessment is a draft, it proposes a 20-year ban on copper mining on federal lands in the watershed. 

Potential fallout from mining in the area includes “the creation of permanently stored waste materials” upstream, which could lead to the release of water with elevated levels of acidity and metal contamination, the assessment states. 

“The greatest potential risk to water quality of the wilderness area and lands within the withdrawal areas comes from catastrophic failure of a wet basin tailings storage (impoundment) dam,” the assessment added. “Wet basin tailings storage poses the risk of dam failure and the potential release of a large volume of contaminated sediment (tailings) and water to a nearby water body with potential transport of it to downstream water bodies and receptors.” 

Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), whose district includes the covered area, said the draft illustrates the need for a permanent legislative ban on mining in the area, which she has introduced. The executive branch does not have the power to unilaterally ban mining in the area permanently. 

“This pristine, precious wilderness demands permanent protection. The EA’s scientific foundation leaves no doubt: it is simply too risky to mine in this location,” McCollum said in a statement. “The proposed 20-year withdrawal is absolutely justified – and to avoid the type of political intervention we previously saw from the Trump administration, my legislation must pass to permanently protect this federal Wilderness and the interests of the American people in perpetuity.” 

The assessment comes nearly six months after the Interior Department announced the cancellation of two mining leases in the area, which were granted under the Trump administration in 2019. The January legal opinion determined the Trump administration had improperly renewed the leases in 2019 after initially approving them the year before.

The Biden administration’s decision extended a ban on new mineral leasing within 225,000 acres for two years. 

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