MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The fight over whether to allow copper-nickel mining near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area of northeastern Minnesota is shifting to the capital city as the U.S. Forest Service opens a new set of public meetings on its proposal to bar minerals exploration and development on more than 234,000 acres near the pristine wilderness for up to 20 years.
A meeting held Tuesday in St. Paul and one scheduled in the Iron Range city of Virginia on July 25 follow one held in Duluth in March.
They’ve already become contentious. Mining supporters announced plans to boycott the St. Paul meeting. They plan a show of force at the Virginia event instead.
The Obama administration announced in December that it would not renew mineral rights leases held by Twin Metals Minnesota, dealing a potentially fatal blow to the company’s efforts to build a large underground copper-nickel mine near Ely.
At the same time the Interior and Agriculture departments also announced a two-year “time out” to study and engage the public on whether any prospecting or mining should be permitted on more than 234,000 acres in the Superior National Forest just outside the Boundary Waters.
That land is in a watershed that flows into the wilderness area, and it includes the Twin Metals site. The agencies cited the threat of acid mine drainage to the area and its tourism economy.
The meetings are part of a public comment process that runs until Aug. 11. Two decades is the longest the agencies could withdraw the lands from mineral exploration on their own. Congress would have to approve a permanent set-aside.
Mining supporters are boycotting the St. Paul hearing and planning a march to the Virginia meeting. The boycott is organized by labor and business groups that say northeastern Minnesota residents — not Twin Cities environmentalists — should have the final say on what happens in their region.
They also say that closing the land to mining would cost the state thousands of jobs from future projects, billions of dollars in investment in northeastern Minnesota and billions in potential revenues for public education.
The Save the Boundary Waters campaign and other mining opponents plan to rally before the St. Paul meeting.
While the Trump administration has generally expressed support for tapping natural resources, it’s proceeding with the two-year study for now, and the Justice Department is seeking to dismiss a lawsuit by Twin Metals that seeks to force renewal of its leases.
At a congressional hearing in May, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, who oversees the Forest Service, said he and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke agreed they would make no decision before the study concludes.
Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell testified the study could conclude that mining upstream from the wilderness “may be too hazardous.”
U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, a Democrat who represents northeastern Minnesota, is trying to get the Trump administration to change course.
The Congressional Western Caucus has sent a letter signed by 26 representatives to Zinke and Perdue, asking them to reverse the Obama administration’s decisions on both the study and the leases.
Nolan said in an interview that he and GOP Rep. Tom Emmer of Minnesota had a “very good conversation” recently with Zinke, and he’s been assured of a meeting with Perdue. He said Zinke is “very supportive of mining … provided it’s done in a way that protects the air, the water, the environment and natural surroundings.”
The withdrawal proposal doesn’t directly affect the planned PolyMet copper-nickel mine near Babbitt, because it sits in a different watershed, but the issues remain closely linked.
PolyMet has cleared a protracted environmental review, but a new hurdle popped up earlier this year when opponents filed four separate lawsuits seeking to block the Forest Service from trading 6,650 acres of federal land that PolyMet needs for a similar amount of private land nearby.
Nolan got a hearing Friday on a bill to nullify those lawsuits and complete the swap. He said he was “cautiously optimistic” that it will pass in the coming weeks.