Boundary Waters Kevin Proescholdt


The proposed copper-nickel mine in the area proposed by PolyMet Mining continues to move ahead. In January 2017 the Forest Service approved a land exchange of 6,650 acres needed by PolyMet to proceed with its proposed open-pit mine. Two lawsuits have been announced to challenge this land exchange, one by the Center for Biological Diversity and Earthworks due to impacts on habitat of wolves and Canada lynx (this is a notice of intent to sue), and the other by WaterLegacy Project, challenging the FS’s failure to properly appraise at their full value the federal lands proposed for exchange (suit filed Jan. 30).


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 storied 1.1 million-acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (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% 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 DNR (The Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission [GLIFWC] ran the complicated water model and determined that PolyMet’s pollution will indeed flow into the BWCAW watershed; 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 MN Department of Natural Resources (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

PolyMet may begin applying for state permits, though litigation challenging the FEIS and the adequacy determination could at least temporarily block the issuance of any permits. Gov. Mark Dayton could also block DNR’s decision.


Read Gov. Dayton’s letter. 


The comment period on the proposed withdrawal of federal lands and minerals from mineral exploration and mining in the watershed of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) in northeastern Minnesota closed Aug. 17, 2017. The U.S. Forest Service (FS) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) are proposing a 20-year mining moratorium on about 234,000 acres of public land. This follows BLM’s notice to Twin Metals that its federal mineral leases would not be renewed, which Twin Metals needs for its massive proposed underground copper-nickel mine.The Forest Service received over 125,000 comments, including 10,195 comments from Wilderness Watch members and supporters. Thanks to all who commented!


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 two-year environmental review period, which would be conducted to support a 20-year withdrawal of federal lands and minerals in the BWCAW watershed.


However, just before Christmas, the Trump Administration’s Department of Interior issued a new legal memorandum designed to fast-track the renewal of these two expired mining leases. The new legal opinion reverses previous departmental policy, and goes against an earlier decision by both the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service to deny the renewal of the expired leases. 


The legal opinion from Trump’s Interior Department doesn’t immediately green-light the toxic sulfide mine within the Boundary Waters Wilderness watershed. Under the mineral leasing laws, the Department of Interior (DOI) issues mineral leases on all federal lands. However, the Forest Service has veto power over any leases issued on national forests. Therefore, both the Forest Service and DOI must approve any decision to lease the lands next to the Boundary Waters.

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 U.S. Forest Service (FS) notified the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) that the FS did not support the renewal of two expired federal mining leases near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) in northeastern Minnesota. The following day, the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) announced it would not automatically renew the two now-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, these two federal agencies 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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