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Breaking: Long-awaited US Forest Service Study finds major risk to Boundary Waters from sulfide-ore copper mining

June 23, 2022

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Jeremy Drucker
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Ely, MN

The draft environmental assessment released today could lead to 20-year ban on sulfide-ore copper mining near the Boundary Waters.

The US Forest Service (USFS) today released a draft environmental assessment (EA) for a proposed 20-year ban on sulfide-ore copper mining, called a “mineral withdrawal,” on 225,504 acres of federal lands and minerals in the watershed of the Boundary Waters. A mineral withdrawal for the Boundary Waters watershed was first proposed in 2016 before being canceled at the 11th hour by the Trump administration and the EA was suppressed. In a recent Duluth News Tribune commentary Former US Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell, who recommended the 2016 withdrawal, called the Boundary Waters withdrawal, “the most important,” of the mineral withdrawals he oversaw during his tenure. In October of 2021 the Biden administration proposed a new mineral withdrawal for the Boundary Waters watershed and the draft EA released today provides the scientific basis for that withdrawal to be completed. 

“The environmental assessment released today provides a strong scientific foundation for a 20-year ban on copper mining near the Boundary Waters,” said Becky Rom, National Chair for the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters. “It is deeply rooted in peer-reviewed science, law,  and established federal public lands policy, and validates the concerns of local residents and the American people about the risk sulfide-ore copper mining poses to the Wilderness. It is clear beyond a shadow of a doubt that the watershed of the Boundary Waters is the wrong place for this risky type of mining.”

The release of the draft EA will be followed by a 30-day comment period. Following agency review of comments, the EA will be finalized and handed to the Bureau of Land Management, which will summarize and deliver it to the desk of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland for a decision. 

Since 2016 there have been 397 days of public comment, 8 listening sessions, and over 500,000 written comments in favor of protecting the Boundary Waters from the threat of copper mining. 

In addition to providing the scientific basis for the 20-year mineral withdrawal, the maximum time allowed by administrative action, the EA provides the foundation for Rep. Betty McCollum’s Boundary Waters Protection and Pollution Prevention Act, which would make the withdrawal permanent. According to the Star Tribune, U.S. Senators Tina Smith and Amy Klobuchar were waiting for the release of the study before committing to a Senate companion for Rep. McCollum’s legislation. 

In January, the Department of Interior terminated two federal mineral leases for Chilean mining conglomerate Antofagasta’s Twin Metals project, after determining they had been unlawfully renewed. Antofagasta proposed a massive underground mine on the edge of the Boundary Waters along lakes and streams that flow directly into the Wilderness. Twin Metals and Antofagasta were widely criticized for providing misleading information during a hearing on Rep. McCollum’s legislation last month. 

The Boundary Waters is the most heavily visited wilderness area in the United States, attracting more than 160,000 visitors from all over the world and is a major driver of the regional economy, supporting hundreds of businesses and thousands of jobs. A peer-reviewed independent study from Harvard University showed that protecting the Boundary Waters from a proposed Twin Metals sulfide-ore copper mine would result in dramatically more jobs and more income over a 20-year period. Nearly 70 percent of Minnesotans support permanent protection for this priceless Wilderness area.