Save the Boundary Waters names former DNR chief as leader

Published 7:36 pm Tuesday, March 5, 2019

ST. PAUL — A group opposing a proposed copper-nickel mine on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness announced Tuesday that its new executive director will be a former Department of Natural Resources commissioner who approved another contentious mining project in northeastern Minnesota.

Tom Landwehr brings deep experience with environmental reviews and permitting to the group, the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters. As DNR commissioner under former Gov. Mark Dayton, Landwehr last year approved the key permits for the planned PolyMet copper-nickel mine near Hoyt Lakes. But he drew a sharp distinction between that project and the proposed Twin Metals mine near Ely, which would sit several miles away on the shores of Birch Lake, in a different watershed that flows into the Boundary Waters.

“This is not a place we should be considering mining,” Landwehr told The Associated Press. “By far and away the Boundary Waters is the most special place in Minnesota. By design and authority it’s a wilderness, and those pristine values are why it has been declared that, and that’s what we have to protect.”

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Becky Rom, national chair of Save the Boundary Waters, called Landwehr the “right person at the right time” to lead the group.

Landwehr is taking the helm when the group is fighting to overturn a Trump administration announcement last year that it plans to reinstate Twin Metals’ federal minerals leases, which fulfilled a pledge that President Donald Trump made at a rally in Duluth. The Obama administration decided in its final weeks not to renew the leases because of the potential threat of acid mine drainage to the Boundary Waters. The vast reserves of copper, nickel and precious metals under northeaster Minnesota are bound up in sulfide ores than can leach sulfuric acid and heavy metals when exposed to air and water.

A lawsuit filed by groups and businesses connected with the campaign seeks to overturn the Trump administration’s decision. Landwehr said he finds the reversal disturbing and believes the Trump administration ignored the law in making its decision.

Landwehr said there’s no inconsistency between his role at the DNR in the PolyMet case and his new position. He said commissioners have to follow the laws and regulations, and any commissioner would have come to the same conclusion that PolyMet met the legal requirements for getting its permits.

“More than anything I want people to realize Twin Metals is not PolyMet,” he said. “They’re very different projects and will have different impacts.”

Twin Metals, which is owned by the Chilean mining company Antofagasta, said in a statement that it plans to file its formal mine plan with state and federal regulators “in the near future,” which would trigger a multi-year environmental review and permitting process similar to what Landwehr oversaw with PolyMet.

“This permitting process, on behalf of all Minnesotans and U.S. citizens, is to determine whether a project can safely meet all environmental requirements,” the statement said. “This process should be allowed to move forward.”