Boundary Waters Kevin Proescholdt


Polymet's proposed open-pit copper-nickel mine not far from the storied 1.1 million-acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) continues to move ahead. In November 2018, Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) granted the project several key permits, including a permit to mine, six water appropriation permits, two dam safety permits, a public waters work permit, and an endangered species takings permit. More permits from other agencies are still required.

In January 2017, the Forest Service approved a land exchange—of 6,650 acres of Superior National Forest land needed by PolyMet to proceed with its proposed mine. Two lawsuits are challenging this land exchange, one by the Center for Biological Diversity and Earthworks due to impacts wolf and Canada lynx habitat, and the other by the WaterLegacy Project, challenging the FS’s failure to properly appraise at their full value the federal lands proposed for exchange.


Background: In December 2015, Wilderness Watch joined with dozens of organizations and tens of thousands of citizens to oppose PolyMet’s proposed copper-nickel sulfide mine in northeastern Minnesota not far from the BWCAW. Over 1,600 Wilderness Watch members and supporters also submitted comments on the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS). And in 2014, over 58,000 comments were submitted on PolyMet’s Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement, with over 98 percent opposed to the proposal.

Despite these tens of thousands of citizen comments and detailed scientific objections filed by conservation groups, little has improved about PolyMet’s proposal. The FEIS is littered with unrealistic assumptions about capturing and treating polluted water and contains no new information about financial assurance (a damage deposit for cleanup costs). In addition, the possibility that PolyMet’s polluted water would flow northward into the Boundary Waters watershed has not been sufficiently addressed by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission ran the complicated water model and determined that PolyMet’s pollution will indeed flow into the BWCAW watershed, but the DNR still has not run the model, relying solely on PolyMet’s consultant. The U.S. EPA, in its comment on the PolyMet FEIS, noted this is a real risk the FEIS doesn’t adequately study and that would need to be addressed in any permit application.

On March 3, 2016, the DNR ruled the FEIS “adequate.” This determination came despite the many questions that remain for the PolyMet proposal, including four key questions raised by colleagues in Minnesota. Gov. Mark Dayton could block DNR’s decision.


Read Gov. Dayton’s letter. 


In May 2018, then Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke renewed two expired federal mining leases previously owned by Twin Metals for its massive proposed underground and open-pit mine on the doorstep of the BWCAW. This despite the 2016 Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) decisions to decline to renew these leases due to the extreme and unacceptable risk they pose to the Wilderness. The renewal of the leases followed a Department of Interior (DOI) new legal memorandum in late 2017 that reversed previous departmental policy and went against the earlier decision by BLM and FS decisions to deny the renewal of the expired leases. 


In another move to open the Boundary Waters to mining, in September 2018, the Trump Administration cancelled an environmental assessment on a proposed 20-year mining moratorium on about 234,000 acres of public land near the Boundary Waters. This move also ended a corresponding two-year ban on mining in Superior National Forest. The Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management proposed this moratorium in late 2016 following BLM’s 2016 notice to Twin Metals that its federal mineral leases would not be renewed.The Forest Service received over 125,000 comments, including 10,195 comments from Wilderness Watch members and supporters. Most of the comments supported the mining moratorium. 


Wilderness Watch and our allies submitted a 155-page scoping comment letter detailing the number and types of environmental analyses that we believe the federal agencies should conduct during the original two-year environmental review period, which was to support the 20-year withdrawal of federal lands and minerals in the BWCAW watershed. 

Background: Twin Metals, the next in a long series of possible mine proposals likely to advance, dwarfs Polymet in size with its proposed massive underground and above-ground mining operation, and would be located all within the BWCAW watershed and nearly next door to the famed canoe country Wilderness. In mid-December 2016, the FS notified the BLM that it did not support the renewal of two expired federal mining leases near the BWCAW. The following day, the BLM announced it would not automatically renew the two expired 1966 federal mining leases needed by Twin Metals, which the company had pushed for without environmental review. On March 7, 2016 Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton released a letter in opposition to using state lands or mineral leases for the Twin Metals project, due to its close proximity to the BWCAW. In mid-January 2016, BLM and FS also published notices in the Federal Register announcing a proposed 20-year withdrawal of federal minerals from exploration or mining in about 234,000 acres in the watershed of the BWCAW and Voyageurs National Park. 

Read "Walter Mondale on fighting to save the soul of Minnesota: the Boundary Waters"


Photo: Kevin Proescholdt

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