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Fight over copper mining in northern Minnesota heats up

A prospecting drill rig bores into bedrock near Ely, Minn., in 2011 in search of copper, nickel and precious metals that Twin Metals Minnesota, hopes to mine near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northeastern Minnesota. The fight over whether to allow copper-nickel mining near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area of northeastern Minnesota is now shifting to St. Paul. The U.S. Forest Service is opening a new set of public meetings on its proposal to bar minerals exploration and development on more than 234,000 acres near the pristine wilderness for up to 20 years. (AP Photo/Steve Karnowski, File)

A prospecting drill rig bores into bedrock near Ely, Minn., in 2011 in search of copper, nickel and precious metals that Twin Metals Minnesota, hopes to mine near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northeastern Minnesota. The fight over whether to allow copper-nickel mining near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area of northeastern Minnesota is now shifting to St. Paul. The U.S. Forest Service is opening a new set of public meetings on its proposal to bar minerals exploration and development on more than 234,000 acres near the pristine wilderness for up to 20 years. (AP Photo/Steve Karnowski, File)

By STEVE KARNOWSKI
Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The fight over whether to allow copper-nickel mining near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area of northeastern Minnesota is shifting to the state’s capital city as the U.S. Forest Service opens a new set of public meetings on its proposal to bar minerals exploration and development on more than 234,000 acres near the pristine wilderness for up to 20 years.

The meetings this coming Tuesday in St. Paul and in the Iron Range city of Virginia on Tuesday, July 25, follow one held in Duluth in March. They’ve already become contentious. Mining supporters have announced plans to boycott the meeting in St. Paul. They plan to have a show of force at the event in Virginia instead.

A look at some of the issues:
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THE PROPOSAL

The Obama administration announced in December that it would not renew mineral rights leases held by Twin Metals Minnesota, possibly dealing a fatal blow to the company’s attempts to build a large underground copper-nickel mine near Ely.

At the same time, the Interior and Agriculture departments announced a two-year “time out” to study whether any prospecting or mining should be permitted on more than 234,000 acres in the Superior National Forest just outside the Boundary Waters. That land is in a watershed lying within the wilderness area, and it includes the Twin Metals site. The agencies cited the threat that acidic mine drainage poses to the area and its tourism industry.

The meetings are part of a public-comment period running until Aug. 11. If the agencies decided to withdraw the lands from mineral exploration on their own, the longest they could do so would be for two decades. Congress would have to approve a permanent set-aside.
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THE BOYCOTT

Mining supporters are boycotting the hearing in St. Paul and planning a march to the meeting in Virginia. The boycott is being organized by labor and business groups that say northeastern Minnesota residents — not Twin Cities environmentalists — should have the final say on what happens in their region.

They also say that closing the land to mining would cost the state thousands of jobs on future projects, billions of dollars worth of investments in northeastern Minnesota and billions in potential revenues for public education.

The Save the Boundary Waters campaign and other mining opponents plan to rally before the St. Paul meeting.
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THE TRUMP ADMINISTRATION

Although the Trump administration has generally expressed support for taking advantage of natural resources, it’s proceeding with the two-year study for now, and the Justice Department is seeking to dismiss a lawsuit by Twin Metals that seeks to force the renewal of its leases.

At a congressional hearing in May, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, who oversees the Forest Service, said he and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke agreed they would make no decision before the study concludes.

Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell testified the study could conclude that mining upstream from the wilderness “may be too hazardous.”
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THE LOCAL CONGRESSMAN

U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, a Democrat who represents northeastern Minnesota, is trying to get the Trump administration to change course. The Congressional Western Caucus has sent a letter signed by 26 representatives to Zinke and Perdue, asking them to reverse the Obama administration’s decisions on both the study and the leases. Nolan said in an interview that he and GOP Rep. Tom Emmer of Minnesota had a “very good conversation” recently with Zinke, and he’s been assured of a meeting with Perdue. He said Zinke is “very supportive of mining … provided it’s done in a way that protects the air, the water, the environment and natural surroundings.”
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THE OTHER MINE

The withdrawal proposal wouldn’t directly affect the planned PolyMet copper-nickel mine near Babbitt, a project that sits in a different watershed. But the two remain closely linked.

PolyMet has already cleared a protracted environmental review. But a new hurdle popped up earlier this year when opponents filed four separate lawsuits seeking to block the Forest Service from trading 6,650 acres of federal land that PolyMet needs for a similar amount of private land nearby.

Nolan got a hearing Friday on a bill to nullify those lawsuits and complete the swap. He said he was “cautiously optimistic” that it will pass in the coming weeks.

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