In January 2010, Duluth Metals Limited, a Canadian mining company, identified the valuable metal concentrations of the Maturi deposit in Northeastern Minnesota, claiming that the area would be the newest development for the mining industry of the United States .
There are an estimated four billion tons of copper and nickel within the Maturi deposit, explaining the economic incentive for a mine in the area . Soon after, Antofagasta, a Chilean mining company, collaborated with Duluth Metals Limited, to found Twin Metals Minnesota (TMM). Twin Metals is a subsidiary of Antofagasta, with fifteen Minnesota-based employees that are focused on advancing the proposed mining plan for the Maturi deposit, which is located within the Superior National Forest, and 2-3 miles south from the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA) .
Twin Metals aims to develop, construct, and operate an underground mine project that will cover 30,000 acres and be attached to a 100-acre mineral processing facility through one mile of pipeline. The project is nicknamed an “underground city,” as the size of the facility would allow for 20,000 tons of mineralized ore to be processed per day, an amount unprecedented in the Midwestern region of the United States . The mine would also be the first in the area, acting as a gateway project for other mining companies to take advantage of Minnesota’s landscape. Another mining company, PolyMet Mining, is simultaneously pushing to build a facility within the same area.
Twin Metals claims that the construction of the mine would bring 700 direct full-time jobs and 1,400 spin off jobs for the residents of the nearby towns of Ely and Babbitt . The underground mine would be located nine miles southeast of Ely and eleven miles northeast of Babbitt. Unfortunately, although they are broadcasting that they will bring jobs to the community, TMM will likely negatively affect the local populations. The mine would cause direct water and air pollution, destroy the forest and wetland habitats, and degrade the land that local indigenous populations are promised access to by treaty. Overall, there are numerous reasons for why Twin Metals Minnesota should not be allowed to develop a mine in this region.
As previously stated, the proposed mine would be in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota. The Boundary Waters cover more than a million acres of lakes and forests that provide a rich habitat for thousands of species. The project’s proposed location is in close proximity to a number of key water bodies, including Birch Lake, the White Iron Chain of Lakes, the South Kawishiwi River, and the Boundary Water Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA). Even more, the mine would be included within the Rainy River watershed, which drains into the Boundary Waters and Canada’s Hudson Bay, thus threatening a considerably large region of water that populations rely on. The Sierra Club has predicted that a single mine in this area would likely pollute nearby water bodies for at least 500 years . If there were to be any polluted runoff from the site, which is essentially guaranteed considering the size and stature of TMM, then a large volume of water would become contaminated.
In addition to local water bodies, the copper-nickel mine also poses a great risk to the area’s groundwater. In the same editorial, the Sierra Club claimed that there is currently no sulfide mine in existence that is not polluting groundwater . Hard rock mining carries greater environmental risks because copper is extracted from sulfur-bearing ore that generates toxic sulfuric acid when exposed to oxygen or water . It is likely that the sulfate from the mine will leach into the environment, and therefore become part of the biochemical process in the aquatic and groundwater ecosystems that convert mercury to methylmercury. In turn, this will cause methylmercury, a poisonous heavy metal, to accumulate in the food chain, affecting aquatic life and crops grown in the contaminated soil.
One group that will be severely affected by the groundwater contamination is the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, who is one of the six Chippewa Indian Bands that comprise the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe . Due to the Treaty of 1854, wild rice gathering in the Ceded Territories is guaranteed to the Chippewa (also known as the Ojibwe) and it is a food source that they heavily rely on during its cultivation season . The Ceded Territories include the Rainy River Watershed, which will most likely be polluted by TMM. If the Rainy River Watershed were to be contaminated by the toxic heavy metals from the mine, the wild rice would be harmed by the high level of sulfate in the soil and groundwater. Therefore, the livelihood, health, and food harvesting of the Fond du Lac Band of Chippewa would be wrongfully harmed.
Another justice issue that is associated with the construction of the Twin Metals mine is the production of mining waste. Less than 1% of the ore extracted from the underground mine would be viable minerals with the remaining 99% being waste rock . In hopes of appearing more environmentally-friendly, Twin Metals released a mining waste plan that they claim is the best available technology in the industry . Their plan involves a dry stack tailings storage method, which involves storing dry tailings in a lined pile underground near the mine’s processing plant. However, the waste would still be stored just a couple miles from the southern edge of the Boundary Waters, within the area’s watershed. The location of the waste is highly problematic considering past examples of tragedies that occurred when similar strategies were used, specifically the disaster that occurred in Brazil when the waste storage of the Córrego de Feijão mine exploded in early 2019, killing nearly 300 people . The explosion released a sludge of muddy mine waste, which swallowed up a section of the local town. Eventually, the waste reached the Paraopeba River, which the locals relied on for the majority of their fish consumption. Aerial photos from the disaster show the previously green landscape consumed by red sludge. With this disaster in mind, opponents of TMM fear that the mine’s waste will cause a similar waste explosion in the BWCA.
The Twin Metals mining project is not only controversial because of its environmental and social justice issues, but it is also the center of a political conflict. Even though the project has been proposed since 2010, it was thought to have been squashed in 2016 when the Obama administration denied Twin Metals their two copper-nickel mineral leases . However, less than two weeks after the Trump administration came into office, they renewed the mineral leases for TMM, claiming that the previous Interior Secretary did not have the discretion to deny the leases . Additionally, in 2018, the Trump administration canceled the U.S. Forest Service environmental review that Obama had ordered that would have determined the wilderness impacts of keeping preserved lands from being converted to mining operations .
In reaction to this political quarrel, a coalition of environmental justice advocates, local businesses, and outdoor recreation groups filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Interior and Twin Metals Minnesota in April 2019 . In the lawsuit, the environmental groups are asking a federal judge to rule without a trial that the Trump administration wrongfully reinstated the two mineral leases, and the flip-flop of governmental policies is illegal. However, it is important to note that the judge for the lawsuit, Trevor McFadden, is a Trump appointee, pointing to an unsuccessful outcome. The plaintiffs view this lawsuit as the latest shot in the state’s prolonged battle over copper-nickel mining in Northeastern Minnesota. Essentially, it is the latest advancement in the decade-long chess game between Twin Metals Minnesota and its environmentalist opponents.
The Twin Metals Minnesota mining project is currently ongoing. The company is still facing litigation from environmental groups, and there are many others that still actively oppose the development of the copper-nickel mine. TMM still faces a yearlong permitting and approval process under the National Environmental Policy Act and by the end of 2019, the company will be allowed to release its operating plan. In November 2019, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources announced that they will conduct an independent environmental review of the mining and waste management plan of Twin Metals, as the state was disappointed by Trump’s cancellation of the review by the U.S. Forest Service. The DNR will be conducting an additional environmental review to ensure that the federal one is not tampered with. The state aims to conduct this review in an open, transparent, and public process .
Save the Boundary Waters is the primary nonprofit that led the successful campaign to temporarily halt mine exploration and initiate the ongoing federal environmental review of mining in the BWCA watershed. They are working alongside other environmental groups, such as Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness, Friends of the Boundary Waters and Voyageur Outward Bound School. Additionally, advocates from the Fond du Lac Band of Minnesota Chippewa are working in collaboration with the plaintiff organizations. Many opposing groups have organized protests against the construction of the mining facility.
There are now a total of five lawsuits in the state and federal courts related to the protection of the Boundary Waters. According to Save the Boundary Waters, the five lawsuits can be described as follows :
1. Federal lawsuit #1: Reinstatement of Leases - This lawsuit is against the federal government for reinstating two expired federal mineral leases previously held by Twin Metals. These leases were lawfully extinguished in 2016, but brought back to life by the Trump administration. This suit was decided against us in the Washington, DC, District Court, but we appealed. The case is now under consideration in the DC Court of Appeals. We are represented by the national law firm of Morrison & Foerster.
2. Federal lawsuit #2: Renewal of Leases- This lawsuit is also against the federal government. In it, we and the other plaintiffs claim that the federal government failed to follow rules under NEPA to adequately evaluate the renewal of the two resurrected Twin Metal mineral leases. This suit was filed in May 2020 in federal district court in Washington, DC. We are represented by the national law firm of Morrison & Foerster.
3. State lawsuit: Minnesota Rules - This lawsuit was filed against the State of Minnesota in June under the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act. In this suit, the Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness, the sole plaintiff, is represented by the law firm of CiresiConlin, LLC. We are challenging the Department of Natural Resources’s nonferrous regulations which we believe are insufficient to protect the Boundary Waters. If we are successful, the DNR will be compelled to rewrite the rules, and there will be an opportunity for consideration of current science. Specifically, we request that the rules be changed to prohibit sulfide-ore copper mining in the entire Rainy River Headwaters, which is the watershed of the Boundary Waters. Sulfide-ore copper mining is currently banned in the northern half of the Rainy River Headwaters (the Boundary Waters) but the southern half - which constitutes the headwaters of the watershed - is unprotected. Our contention is that the only way to ensure that the waters of the Boundary Waters remain clean and without degradation from mining is to ban sulfide-ore copper mining in the southern half. All waters in the southern half flow north into the northern half. Eighty percent of the Boundary Waters is in the northern half of the watershed and are at significant risk unless the DNR regulations are updated to reflect modern science and common sense.
4. NEPA Lawsuit: Environmental Rollbacks - While Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness (lead organization of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters) is not a party in this lawsuit, our National Campaign Chair - Becky Rom - is cited as one of the affected persons. This lawsuit against the Trump administration challenges the recent evisceration of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Our partners in the fight to protect the Boundary Waters - EarthJustice and The Wilderness Society - are defending one of the nation’s most important environmental protection laws. Changes the Trump administration made will mean polluted water, degraded natural landscapes, and air that’s not fit to breathe and sharply limit public involvement in some of our nation’s most important natural resource decisions.
5. Federal Lawsuit #3: Renewal of Prospecting Permits - This lawsuit challenges the Trump administration over its decision to renew 13 prospecting permits that could allow Twin Metals to significantly expand its proposed sulfide-ore copper mine. The Save the Boundary Waters is also asking people to sign a petition that will be used to show the public’s disapproval of the mine. If you are interested in signing it, you can find the petition via this link: https://www.savetheboundarywaters.org/bwca-action.
On September 30, 2020, President Trump signed an executive order that would fast-track mining permits in an effort to increase domestic mining, declaring a national emergency. According to the administration, this order will “cut down on unnecessary delays in permitting actions, providing Americans opportunities for jobs and improving economic and national security” . However, with opposition from groups such as Save the Boundary Waters, this executive order does not necessarily mean that hope is lost for Minnesota’s Superior National Forest. Environmental review and permitting within the state is independent of federal authority, which includes the Minnesota Department of Natural Resource’s independent environmental review mentioned above . Opposition to Twin Metals Mining must remain strong if this land is to be protected.
The Boundary Waters are highly valued by Minnesotans and Canadians along the border. They must be protected from the threat of Twin Metals Minnesota causing environmental degradation and the loss of the livelihoods for the Native American Tribes and other inhabitants/visitors to the region.
In short, the project’s progress is apparently going back and forth over the past three administrations. In 2016, former President Barack Obama’s administration refused to renew two leases that Twin Metals needs to operate the mine and also proposed a 20-year ban on other new mining projects in the watershed of the Boundary Waters.
However, those decisions were reversed by the Trump administration (2017-2021), and Twin Metals again submitted the project plan to state and federal regulators, asking for a multi-year environmental review and permitting process .
Currently however, the Biden administration is in process to express its views on the project proposal and will either cancel the project or allow the project to progress .