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Biden administration cancels two mining leases near Minnesota wilderness, in reversal of Trump-era decision

For years, a proposed copper and nickel mine near the popular Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness has been at the center of a tug of war between Democratic and Republican administrations

A lake within the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Ely, Minn., in September 2019. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

The Biden administration has canceled two leases near Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness — a remote, lake-pocked region at the center of a blistering fight over whether to mine near one of the nation’s most popular wilderness destinations.

On Wednesday, the Interior Department said it found that the leases to extract copper, nickel and other valuable hardrock minerals in northern Minnesota were improperly renewed under Donald Trump. The Biden administration’s decision will help protect the hundreds of lakes, streams and wetlands in the 1.1 million-acre wilderness area hugging the Canadian border from the potential toxic leaching from mining.

“The Department of the Interior takes seriously our obligations to steward public lands and waters on behalf of all Americans,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in a statement. “We must be consistent in how we apply lease terms to ensure that no lessee receives special treatment.”

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Each year, Boundary Waters attracts roughly 150,000 Boy Scouts and others visitors looking to canoe, fish and connect with nature. The glaciers that gouged the region over the past 2 million years left behind a rugged terrain that today is home to wolves, moose, bobcats, beavers, bald eagles and peregrine falcons.

More recently, the wooded wilderness west of Lake Superior has been knotted in a tug of war between Democratic and Republican administrations in Washington.

A month before Barack Obama left office, the Interior Department blocked a mining company’s request to renew permission to extract copper and nickel near Boundary Waters over concerns about the ecological and economic impact.

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Two years later, the Trump administration changed course and eased the way for Twin Metals Minnesota, a subsidiary of the Chilean mining conglomerate Antofagasta, by curtailing a detailed environmental review of the project. The prospect of a major copper-nickel mine, and the jobs it would bring, divided nearby residents, who disagreed over how best to harness and protect the region’s natural resources.

Ann Marie Bledsoe Downes, the Interior Department’s principal deputy solicitor, wrote in a legal opinion signed Tuesday that the Trump administration fell short in its legal obligations by conducting an inadequate environmental analysis and by sidestepping the U.S. Forest Service, which manages the surface area, in its decision-making.

Two federal agencies — the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management and the Agriculture Department’s Forest Service — are still considering a potential 20-year ban on new mine leases near the wilderness.

The announcement garnered praise from environmentalists and Democratic lawmakers.

“The Boundary Waters is an ecological marvel and an economic engine,” said Jeremy Drucker, senior adviser for the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters. “Today is a good day for the millions of Americans who love the Boundary Waters.”

Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), who is sponsoring legislation to permanently protect the wilderness area’s watershed, called the decision “a victory for sound science and protecting a precious and irreplaceable natural resource.”

“Some places are simply too special to mine,” she added in a statement, “and it is our obligation to ensure these unique and valuable lands and waters remain intact for generations to come.”

But the country still faces difficult choices over where to get the copper and other key materials needed for President Biden’s promised clean-energy transition.

The National Mining Association, which represents the U.S. mining industry, lamented that the cancellation of the leases would only “deepen our heavy dependency on foreign sources” of minerals.

“This decision is disappointing and foreshadows a global economic, energy, manufacturing and overarching supply chain race where the U.S. may be watching from the sidelines,” the lobbying group said in a statement.

Twin Metals Minnesota called the Biden administration’s decision “disappointing, but not surprising given the series of actions the administration has taken to try and shut the door on copper-nickel mining in northeast Minnesota.”

“This is not about law; this is a political action intended to stop the Twin Metals project without conducting the environmental review prescribed in law,” the company said in a statement. “We have proposed a world-class underground copper, nickel, cobalt and platinum group metals mine that deserves to be evaluated through the established environmental review process.”

The company added that “we are confident that a full environmental review will show that the science behind this modern mine will prove that we can advance this project safely under the highest of standards.”

Joshua Partlow contributed to this report.

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