Editorial Roundup: Protect the BWCA and complete mining risk study

Published 8:49 pm Friday, August 27, 2021

Raging wildfires and a deepening drought have understandably put new leaders at the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Interior into crisis management mode.

But Biden appointees Tom Vilsack and Deb Haaland, the respective secretaries heading these two sprawling agencies, must not lose focus of another vital obligation: protecting northeastern Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA) from potential copper mining pollution.

Their agencies share responsibility for the health of this fragile, federally protected wilderness. Roughly half a year after Vilsack’s and Haaland’s confirmations, they have yet to publicly announce a sensible step to ensure that science, not a Chilean mining conglomerate’s political influence, drives decisions about the fate of the beloved BWCA.

That logical action: completing a halted two-year study of copper mining’s risks to the BWCA watershed. The study was begun during the Obama administration and could have led to a 20-year mining moratorium on federal lands near the BWCA, as well as paved the way for Congress to enact permanent protections.

Twin Metals Minnesota aims to open a 20,000-ton-per-day underground mine on a site that isn’t in the BWCA but would be perched on the shore of a nearby lake whose waters flow into the wilderness, providing a pathway for any pollutants. Chilean-based Antofagasta, controlled by the wealthy Luksic family, owns Twin Metals.

Under the Trump administration, the environmental study was halted just a few months before completion. The data gathered was kept secret despite demands by members of Congress and the Star Tribune Editorial Board to make it public.

The Trump administration’s Department of Interior, which was led by a former lobbyist dogged by ethics concerns, also engaged in dubious legal maneuvering to reinstate mineral leases sought by Twin Metals that the Obama administration had rejected.

Additionally, news that Ivanka Trump had rented a mansion owned by a Luksic family member raised questions about the presidential family’s coziness with the Chilean firm. In a 2019 special report, the Editorial Board argued that neither the actions nor the actors involved in the Trump administration’s Twin Metals decision making were trustworthy.

U.S. Sen. Tina Smith, a Minnesota Democrat, has admirably called for the study’s completion. It’s reasonable to expect an answer by now on when that will happen. But Vilsack regrettably sidestepped the issue during a recent Twin Cities visit.

He toured Second Harvest Heartland on Aug. 13. During press availability, he declined to answer an editorial writer’s question about when the decision would be made, but added that it’s a joint effort between his agency and Haaland’s. “We are currently waiting on Department of Interior analysis,” he said.

In response to an editorial writer’s follow-up inquiry, Interior officials also declined to say when a decision should be expected.

Twin Metals officials provided this statement about the need to complete the study: “The proposed additional mining withdrawal study is unnecessary, undermines the environmental review process already underway and diminishes confidence in the regulatory system and the hardworking state and federal employees seeing that process through.”

“Under the established regulatory process, a mining project in the U.S. takes on average 16 years to be permitted. This accounts for a thorough scientific environmental impact review, permitting processes and exhaustive litigation. The regulatory process for mines in allied nations that share a strong commitment to environmental protection, such as in Australia and Canada, takes much less time. Consequently, those nations are gaining a competitive advantage over the U.S. in the green economy.”

Twin Metals also noted it has invested more than $500 million in the proposed project. Millions more are likely needed. That’s why Twin Metals, in addition to the public, deserves a timely answer from the Biden administration about whether the study will be restarted and completed.

Former President Barack Obama’s administration waited until the very end of his second term to take action to protect the BWCA, whose pristine waters are even more valuable amid drought and climate change.

President Joe Biden should signal his strong intention to preserve it by acting at the beginning of his time in office.

— Minneapolis Star Tribune, Aug. 25

About Editorial Roundup

Editorials from newspapers around the state of Minnesota.

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