USDA Cancels Environmental Study, Allows Mining Near Minnesota Wilderness

Published Sep 17, 2018

The USDA canceled an assessment in Minnesota meant to study the effects of establishing sulfide-ore copper mines near one of the state’s most fragile wilderness areas.

Update 5/17/19: The Department of Interior (DOI) granted two hardrock mineral leases inside Minnesota’s Superior National Forest, which is located within the watershed of Boundary Waters, to the copper mining company Twin Metals Minnesota LLC

What happened: The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) canceled an environmental assessment in Minnesota that was meant to study the effects of establishing sulfide-ore copper mines near one of the state’s most popular and fragile wilderness areas, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. This action will allow new mining—and the potential toxic discharges that come with it—in Minnesota’s Superior National Forest within the watershed of Boundary Waters, without a firm scientific basis to do so.

Why it matters: The mission of the USDA’s Forest Service is to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations. Achieving that mission requires policies backed by the best possible science, but the current administration has now halted an important scientific study that would have provided valuable insight into environmental risks faced by the Boundary Waters region. In this area of interconnected waterways, the existing science suggests that toxic discharge from the mines could contaminate the watershed and cause significant and long-term damage to the area’s ecosystem. By ignoring that evidence and halting an additional environmental assessment before it can be completed, the current administration is undercutting the Forest Service’s mission and compromising the health of Boundary Waters and the fish, wildlife, and people who depend on this area.

In December 2016, the Obama administration proposed a 20-year ban on mining operations near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness based on concerns that mining near the northern Minnesota wilderness “could lead to irreversible impacts upon natural resources.” This led to a comprehensive study endeavor called an environmental impact statement, which was meant to assess whether sulfide-ore copper mining in the adjacent Superior National Forest could potentially leach toxic metals into Boundary Waters. In order to conduct this environmental impact statement properly, the Obama Administration decided in January 2017 to block mineral extraction for two years in the Superior National Forest. Under the Trump administration, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Purdue confirmed his commitment to the two-year review during a congressional hearing in May 2017, saying that he would be “absolutely allowing that [environmental review] to proceed.

However, in January 2018, Perdue’s Forest Service moved to truncate the study into a less stringent environmental assessment, sharply scaling back the comprehensiveness of the review. On September 6, 2018, the USDA changed course again, deciding to fully cancel the environmental assessment and framed action as the removal of “a major obstacle to mineral leasing in Minnesota” that “balances USDA’s commitment to both economic opportunity and conservation.”

This policy decision opens the door for Twin Metals Minnesota LLC, a copper-and-nickel mining company, to proceed with its prior plans of building an underground copper-nickel mine just a few miles from Boundary Waters, with 850 employees operating for at least 30 years. Twin Metals Minnesota previously sued the Obama administration for denying it mineral leases in the area, has played a role in the decision to downgrade the study to a less stringent environmental assessment, and has connections to the Trump family.

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is the most visited wilderness in the United States. The region’s lakes and streams date from the Pleistocene Epoch and the area has changed little in the last 10,000 years since Paleo-Indians first lived there. Congress passed the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act in 1978 to protect the region’s fish and wildlife and the environmental quality of lakes, streams, shorelines, and forests. The law directly stated that one of its main purposes was to “minimize to the maximum extent possible, the environmental impacts associated with mineral development.

The Trump administration has justified its halting of the environmental assessment because “[t]he analysis did not reveal new scientific information.” This statement defies logic, as several new scientific studies have been carried out since January 2017. These include a 2018 economic impact analysis on how mining in Superior National Forest will affect the state’s economy, a 2017 sociological study on the public’s reaction to the building of an open pit mine next to Superior National Forest, and a 2017 USDA study mapping the threats to wilderness areas in Boundary Waters. One 2017 economic analysis estimated a loss of $288 million every year in visitor spending if sulfide-ore copper mines are established near Boundary Waters. A 2017 poll of Minnesota voters showed an overwhelming majority (79 percent) supported the two-year pause in mining to conduct an environmental review, while a majority (59 percent) opposed the siting of sulfide-ore copper mines near Boundary Waters altogether.

The danger of sulfide-ore copper mines in this region is that toxic waste from the mines can seep and flow into lakes, rivers, streams, wetlands and groundwater and can cause irreparable harm to the waterways, wildlife, and the forests. An estimated 92 percent of US sulfide-ore copper mines have experienced failures that have impacted water quality. Some evidence suggests that toxic waste from a single mine in the region’s watershed area could continuously pollute Boundary Waters for hundreds of years. Together, these findings suggest that we need a clear and in-depth environmental assessment of the potential risks that mining can have on the area. Environmental impact statements and environmental assessments are required by the National Environmental Policy Act because they provide the best and most accurate science in order to make informed policy decisions. The current administration is once again killing, ignoring, or suppressing a scientific study that would enable more effective policy and a healthier environment for the nation.