Paved Paradise and Put Up a Copper-Sulfide Mine: Federal Intervention Halts Twin Metals Mining Project in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters
April 11, 2022 by James C. Ryan
By Eleanor Green, Staff Contributor
Spanning the border of Minnesota and Ontario is a pristine wilderness area called the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness, or simply the Boundary Waters. This natural area has held a place of importance for ecologists, outdoor recreationists, and native communities for generations. The Boundary Waters is home to some of the United States’ most endangered species, including the Gray Wolf and the Canadian Lynx. For native communities in Minnesota, such as the Chippewa, hunting, fishing, and gathering within the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area and the Superior National Forest is a way of life tenuously preserved after generations of forceful relocation, land constriction, and cultural suppression. It also has the dubious honor of sitting on one of the largest undeveloped copper deposits in the world.
As is common in debates over land management in rural areas, there are opposing voices on either side of the debate. While many locals feel the mining project would provide an economic boost to northern Minnesota, other locals feel that even the possibility of damaging the watershed should be avoided at all costs. For many years, various bands of Minnesota’s Chippewa community have advocated against potentially harmful projects near the Boundary Waters. The Chippewa maintain the usufructuary rights to harvest wild rice, hunt, and fish on lands ceded to the United States Federal Government due to the Treaty of 1854. These practices are both integral to the cultural identity and act as a major source of sustenance for the Superior Chippewa bands. The unique geographic makeup of the Boundary Waters makes it especially susceptible to impacts of mining, including heightened mercury levels and the release of aqueous sulfates into the ecosystem, pollutants that negatively impact fishing and wild rice growth, respectively. The concerns of local tribes have not swayed the entire community, however. Local politicians have supported boycotts of tribal businesses in retribution to tribal leaders seeking publicity for the potential dangers of the mining project.
Controversy over the Twin Metals mining project has spanned three administrations, starting with the Obama Administration’s decision to deny the application for a lease renewal based on environmental concerns in 2016. In addition to denying the lease renewal, the U.S. Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture initiated steps that would shelter key portions of the watershed from subsequent mineral permits and leases. Soon after Trump’s inauguration, this stance was overturned as the then-president made numerous efforts to free up federal lands for mineral extraction. In addition to the Minnesota Boundary Waters, the Trump Administration approved projects in Utah and Arizona, to alter previously protected natural areas massively. A distressing commonality in these projects is their impact on lands that are spiritually or practically important to local native populations. In January of 2022, Biden’s administration reversed the actions taken by Trump regarding the Boundary Waters project. The U.S. Department of the Interior stated that the decision to reinstate the leases in 2019 was improper. The circumstances surrounding the lease’s reinstatement were not in alignment with the current Interior Secretary’s standards. She cites violations of departmental regulations, inadequate environmental analysis, and speculated “special treatment” as reasons for overturning the previous administration’s action.
Despite the mining project sitting at a standstill for seven years and the cancellation of the lease renewals for a second time, it is unclear if this saga is at its end. In February of 2022, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources informed the company and the public that they would be closing the administrative record and redirecting staff to different projects. Twin Metals Minnesota responded by making a statement in which they assert their determination to advance the project, defending their mineral rights in court, if necessary. Whether they celebrate or commiserate the newest delay in this project, local Minnesotans can only await the next parry of legislation, court appeals, or administrative overturn to grant a clear trajectory for the future of mining and the Minnesota Boundary Waters.
 See Lee E. Frelich et al., Wilderness Conservation in an Era of Global Warming and Invasive Species: A Case Study From Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, 29 Natural Areas Journal 385, 385-93 (2009).
 Hiroko Tabuchi, Biden Administration Cancels Mining Leases Near Wilderness Area, New York Times (Jan. 26, 2022), https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/26/climate/boundary-waters-copper-mining.html?smid=url-share; S.B. Barber-Meyer et al., The Importance of Wilderness to Wolf (Canis Lupis) Survival and Cause-specific Mortality Over 50 Years, 258 Biological Conservation (2021); David L. Mech, Long-term Research on Wolves in the Superior National Forest, in Recovery of Gray Wolves in the Great Lakes Region of the United Sates 15-34 (Edward Heske et al ed. 2009) (Even when the Gray Wolf had been completely extirpated in the rest of the contiguous United States, their population managed to remain in the hundreds in the wilds of northern Minnesota).
 Hiroko Tabuchi and Steve Eder, A Plan to Mine the Minnesota Wilderness Hit a Dead End. Then Trump Became President, New York Times (June 25, 2019), https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/25/climate/trump-minnesota-mine.html?smid=url-share (there is an estimated four billion tons of copper and nickel ore in the Boundary Waters region).
 See generally Gavin Bridge, The Social Regulation of Resource Access and Environmental Impact: Production, Nature and Contradiction in the US Copper Industry, 31 Geoforum 237-56 (2000).
 Treaty with the Chippewa, Chippewas of Lake Superior -U.S., Sep. 30, 1854, 10 Stats., 1109, (https://files.dnr.state.mn.us/aboutdnr/laws_treaties/1854/treaty1854.pdf).
 Jennifer Pearson et al, Risks and Costs to Human Health of Sulfide-ore Mining Near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness 26 Human and Ecological Risk Assessment 1329-40 (2020).
 Greg Seitz, Tribal Group Supports Legislation to Prevent Mining Near Boundary Waters, Quetico Superior Wilderness News (Feb. 24, 2020), https://queticosuperior.org/blog/tribal-group-supports-legislation-to-prevent-mining-near-boundary-waters/.
 Press Release No. 0264.16, U.S. Dep’t of the Interior and U.S.D.A. Deny Lease Renewal Application to Protect Minn. Watershed (Dec. 15, 2016) (on file with the Office of Commc’ns); Obama Administration Takes Steps to Protect Watershed of the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area, USDA (Feb. 8, 2020, 5:05 PM), https://www.usda.gov/media/press-releases/2016/12/15/obama-administration-takes-steps-protect-watershed-boundary-waters; Jael Holzman, Biden Admin Cancels Mining Leases Near Boundary Waters, Greenwire (Jan. 26, 2022); Juliet Eilperin, Feds Deny Request to Renew Mining Lease in Minnesota Wilderness Area, The Washington Post (Dec. 15, 2016), https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2016/12/15/obama-administration-denies-mining-leases-near-boundary-waters-wilderness-in-minnesota/.
 Press Release No. 0264.16, U.S. Dep’t of the Interior and U.S.D.A. Deny Lease Renewal Application to Protect Minn. Watershed (Dec. 15, 2016) (on file with the Office of Commc’ns).
 Hiroko Tabuchi and Steve Eder, A Plan to Mine the Minnesota Wilderness Hit a Dead End. Then Trump Became President, New York Times (June 25, 2019), https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/25/climate/trump-minnesota-mine.html?smid=url-share.
 Eric Lipton, In Last Rush, Trump Grants Mining and Energy Firms Access to Public Lands, New York Times (Dec. 19, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/19/us/politics/in-last-rush-trump-grants-mining-and-energy-firms-access-to-public-lands.html?smid=url-share; Coral Davenport, Trump Opens National Monument Land to Energy Exploration, New York Times (Feb. 6, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/06/climate/trump-grand-staircase-monument.html?smid=url-share.
 Hiroko Tabuchi, Biden Administration Cancels Mining Leases Near Wilderness Area, New York Times (Jan. 26, 2022), https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/26/climate/boundary-waters-copper-mining.html?smid=url-share.
 Id. (President Trump’s push to reinstate the mining company’s lease was under public scrutiny after his daughter’s family rented a home from Andronico Luksic, whose family controls the conglomerate of which the Twin Metals Minnesota project is a subsidiary).
 Minnesota DNR Stops Environmental Review of Twin Metals, Duluth News Tribune (Feb. 15, 2022), https://www.duluthnewstribune.com/business/minnesota-dnr-stops-environmental-review-of-twin-metals.
See H.R. 5598, 116th Cong. (2020) (a bill reported to the Minnesota House proposing to withdraw 234,328 acres of federal land and waters within the Rainy River Watershed of Superior National Forest in Minnesota from operation of the mineral leasing, mineral materials, and geothermal leasing laws) (https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-bill/5598?r=7&s=1).