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The Biden administration is seeking a 20-year moratorium on copper mining in the Upper National Forest near the Boundary Waters National Canoe Wilderness Area, repeating a process that started and stopped under the administrations previous ones.

In a joint announcement Wednesday, the US Department of the Interior and the US Department of Agriculture – which together regulate mining – said the Forest Service had asked the Bureau of Land Management for a withdrawal of ore. This begins deliberations for a 20-year withdrawal of more than 200,000 acres of federal land in the Rainy River watershed in northern Minnesota from new mining permit activity.

A final decision on the request could take two years. If it goes into effect, the moratorium could put at risk the $ 1.7 billion Twin Metals copper-nickel mine that Chilean copper king Antofogasta wants to build next to the boundary waters. But Wednesday’s announcement did not specify the exact impact on this project.

The action begins a two-year period banning any new federal mining leases or prospecting permits issued in the area, according to the announcement, “but does not affect existing valid rights or activities on private land.”

Twin Metals already has two renewed federal mining leases under the Trump administration, after the Obama administration canceled them. And a moratorium would not affect existing leases. However, the renewal and reinstatement of these leases remain in dispute and under consideration. The action could affect any additional mining leases Twin Metals may seek.

The two federal agencies said they were responding to “great concerns about the potential impacts of mining on the wilderness watershed, fish and wildlife, tribal trust and treaty rights, and l ‘local recreational economy of nearly $ 100 million per year.

“A place like the Boundary Waters should be enjoyed and protected for everyone, not only today but for future generations,” Home Secretary Deb Haaland said in the statement.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack called the boreal outback “irreplaceable.”

“I have asked the Forest Service to work with the Bureau of Land Management to conduct a careful environmental scan and engage the public on whether future mining should be permitted on any federal land adjacent to this spectacular wilderness resource. and unique, ”Vilsack said.

Vilsack, Secretary of Agriculture under the Obama administration, initiated the withdrawal of minerals in late 2016. During this process, the Forest Service began a major study on the environmental, cultural and economic impacts of mining. copper near boundary waters.

The Trump administration canceled the nearly completed study because it gave the go-ahead for the Twin Metals project and refused to release the unfinished study to the public despite a wave of demands and lawsuits to do so. Like other organizations, the Star Tribune received a 60-page editorial and blacked-out version last year.

Twin Metals Minnesota, a subsidiary of Antofogasta, has plans for a $ 1.7 billion underground copper-nickel mine along Birch Lake, just outside of the boundary waters near Ely, which will open d ‘by 2030.

Twin Metals and the unions expected to gain new members from the jobs created by the project have decried the move as pointless and short-sighted. The company issued a statement saying it was “deeply disappointed” and determining the best way forward.

“We are firmly committed to the communities of northeastern Minnesota and to promoting a sustainable mining project that will bring much-needed economic growth to our region, in addition to the opportunity to responsibly develop the essential minerals necessary for our efforts.” global climate change campaigns. crisis, ”Twin Metals spokesperson Kathy Graul said in a statement.

Two unions with labor agreements to build Twin Metals mines called the move “counterproductive”. The United States must reduce its dependence on foreign countries for metals essential to the energy transition from fossil fuels, they said.

“This move will send a message to the mining industry that it shouldn’t worry about looking to the United States to produce these metals,” said Jason George, commercial director of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 49. “This is a huge shortfall. Opportunity for job creation and leaves us entirely dependent on unstable nations to provide us with the metals we need to fight climate change.”

In an interview, U.S. Representative Pete Stauber, an Iron Range Republican, called the move a “political coup” to ban mining in northeast Minnesota, which “will kill thousands of jobs “.

Environmental groups who have fought the mine proposal for years have called the announcement a major victory for the fragile boreal hinterland. The boundary waters are a labyrinth of lakes, streams, wetlands and forests covering 1,500 square miles.

Still, leaders of the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness and the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters said they were unsure whether the move would significantly delay development of the Twin Metals mine or threaten to shut it down.

In a statement, Becky Rom, national president of the Campaign to Save Boundary Waters, called the action “a big first step on the road to permanent protection.”

“The appropriate next step for the administration is to revoke the two Twin Metals leases that the Trump administration has illegally reinstated,” Rom said. “The bordering waters are a paradise of wood and water. It is an ecological wonder, a world-class outdoor destination and an economic engine for hundreds of businesses and thousands of people. “

US representative Betty McCollum, member of the St. Paul’s DFL and mine opponent, called the action a “welcome return to science-based decision-making.”

“After years of broken promises and continued obstruction of the previous administration’s taxpayer-funded data, I am pleased that President Biden is committing to performing the analysis necessary to understand the impacts that mining Sulphide ore could have on this invaluable supply of fresh water, the biodiversity habitat it supports and the economic livelihoods of the surrounding community, ”she said in a statement.

Mining on federal lands is regulated by both the Bureau of Land Management of the United States Department of the Interior and the Forest Service of the United States Department of Agriculture. The interior governs subterranean minerals and extraction, agriculture controls surface lands such as forests.

The Twin Metals project is separate from the proposed PolyMet copper-nickel mine further south at Babbit and Hoyt Lakes. The proposed PolyMet mine is said to be on land formerly owned by LTV Steel Co., which has been closed for approximately two decades.

In April, the Minnesota Supreme Court overturned PolyMet’s mining license, returning the company’s central license to state regulators for further review.

Jennifer Bjorhus • 612-673-4683

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