Trump administration plan to mine near popular Minnesota wilderness area sparks multiple lawsuits

Plans to mine copper in the state's national forest would bring "contamination and degradation" environmental groups say.

The Trump administration is promoting mining near Minnesota's Boundary Waters Canoe Area (Credit: Jeffrey Phelps/Getty Images)
The Trump administration is promoting mining near Minnesota's Boundary Waters Canoe Area (Credit: Jeffrey Phelps/Getty Images)

Environmental groups have filed a lawsuit against Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke in an effort to stop plans to allow mining near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northeastern Minnesota.

The lawsuit was filed in a federal district court on June 25 in Washington, D.C. by The Wilderness Society, Center for Biological Diversity, and the Izaak Walton League of America, and represented by Earthjustice. Together, the organizations join nine local Minnesota businesses that filed a similar, separate lawsuit last week.

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The legal challenges come after President Donald Trump announced during a rally in Duluth, Minnesota last week that he wanted to keep large portions of land within the state’s Superior National Forest — where the Boundary Waters recreation area is located — open to mining. These ares of land were set to be banned to industry activities under the Obama administration.

This followed a decision issued by the Interior Department last month to reinstate two expired federal mineral leases held by Twin Metals Minnesota. The foreign-owned company is pursuing a copper-nickel project in the area and stands to benefit from Trump’s promise to rescind an Obama-era decision to restrict industrial access from hundreds of thousands of acres in the national forest.

At the end of his term as president, Obama moved to block roughly 234,000 acres in Minnesota’s Superior National Forest from mining exploration and other activities in order to first study the environmental impact of such activities. The proposal would have put a 20-year ban on industry with a two-year moratorium while the impact study would be conducted.

“If built, such a mine would threaten the Boundary Waters with contamination and degradation,” the environmental groups’ lawsuit says about Twin Metals’ project.

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The Boundary Waters area is a hugely popular wilderness area with over 1,000 lakes, providing more than 1,000 miles of canoe routes and numerous hikes. According to the environmental groups suing Zinke, pollution from sulfide-ore copper mining could harm water quality and the region’s ecology. Impacts on tourism, a key economic driver for the area, would also be a risk, they argue.

“The natural resources in and around the Boundary Waters are too important to put at risk from sulfide mining,” said Scott Kovarovics, executive director of the Izaak Walton League. “The Department of Interior has just amplified that risk by arbitrarily reversing its previous decision not to renew Twin Metals’ mineral leases.”

In December 2016, the Forest Service originally denied the mineral leases. It told the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) that the risks from the hard rock mining process to extract copper and nickel minerals from sulfide ore would be too high. This led to BLM denying Twin Metals’ lease renewal application on December 15, 2016.

Following Trump’s rally last week, however, the push to promote mining in Minnesota has continued.

“Areas of Minnesota, notably the Duluth Complex, are known as among the world’s largest undeveloped deposits of platinum group metals, a critical mineral group that is crucial to advancing our tech economy,” Interior deputy secretary David Bernhardt wrote in an op-ed published Sunday in the local Duluth News Tribune. “The previous presidential administration made it a priority to take a lot of these resources off the table.”

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“Under the bold leadership of President Trump and Secretary Ryan Zinke, Interior has reversed course, and we are all in on America,” Bernhardt wrote.

Opening up more land to resource extraction has been a top priority under the Trump administration. A leaked document last year showed that coal, oil, and natural gas extraction from public lands would be a focus for BLM, a clear reversal from the previous administration.

And as emails revealed in March, oil and gas drilling was a key motivating factor behind the decision to shrink national monuments in Utah. The emails also showed that last year Interior officials met with a uranium company to discuss mining near Bears Ears. Surface exploration is now set to begin this summer after a Canadian mining company announced it had acquired rights to mine copper and cobalt on lands eliminated from Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

Meanwhile, mining groups have filed petitions with the U.S. Supreme Court in an effort to overturn an Obama-era rule banning uranium mining near Grand Canyon National Park.