## Biden Administration puts 20-year ban on mining in 225k acres in northeastern Minnesota; huge blow to Twin Metals copper project

##### 28 January 2023

US Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland signed Public Land Order 7917 withdrawing approximately 225,504 acres in the Superior National Forest in northeastern Minnesota from disposition under the United States mineral and geothermal leasing laws for a 20-year period, subject to valid existing rights.

The Biden Administration said that this action will help protect the Rainy River watershed, including the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and the 1854 Ceded Territory of the Chippewa Bands, from potential adverse impacts of new mineral and geothermal exploration and development.

The decision puts Twin Metals Minnesota (TMM)—a US subsidiary of Chilean multinational Antofagasta PLC which is also one of the top ten copper producers in the world—proposing to develop an $1.7-billion underground copper, nickel, cobalt and platinum group metals mining project in that area in limbo. The decision provides yet another example of the tension between environmental protection and resource extraction required for the mandated energy transition. Twin Metals is targeting the minerals within the Maturi deposit, part of the Duluth Complex geologic formation—one of the largest undeveloped deposits of these minerals in the world, with more than 4.4 billion tons of ore containing copper, nickel and other strategic minerals. The Twin Metals project would be just south of the Boundary Waters and within the new withdrawal area. TMM notes that because of the way it was formed, the Maturi deposit contains minerals condensed in a narrow band. This allows more precise underground mining, according to the company. About 80% of mining would occur below 1500 ft and about 40% will occur below 2700 ft. The Maturi deposit is a contact-style mafic copper-nickel deposit—different than many of the world’s copper deposits, called porphyry deposits, which represent about 90% of the world’s copper deposits and require open-pit mining. The Federal withdrawal lands are located within a portion of the Rainy River watershed, outside the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Mining Protection Area (MPA), as indicated on the (withdrawal area outlined in red). Twin Metals has invested more than$550 million in the development of its project over the past 12 years.

The latest wrangling over this area reaches back to 2017, when the US Forest Service filed an application for withdrawal of 234,328 acres of NFS land in the Superior National Forest. However, the Forest Service at the time never completed the application procedure (i.e., with reports and case files). The Regional Forester at the time believed that a withdrawal order was not needed under the circumstances and that the Forest Service could rely upon its consent role in the hardrock mineral leasing process, applied on a case-by-case basis, to provide necessary protection of Superior National Forest resources and the BWCAW. The Regional Forester thus cancelled the application for withdrawal in September 2018.

Then, in May 2019, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) renewed two hardrock mineral leases within the watershed held by Franconia Minerals (US) LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Twin Metals Minnesota, for the third time (called the Jorjani Opinion). TMM then submitted a Mine Plan of Operation (MPO) for joint approval by the Forest Service and BLM in December 2019.

In 2020, a US District Court rejected a challenge by environmental groups to the Interior Department’s reinstatement of Twin Metals’ two hardrock mineral leases in the area.

In 2021, the federal government again initiated a mineral withdrawal study in the area. That was followed by the BLM rejecting Twin Metals Minnesota’s preference right lease applications and prospecting permit applications.

In January 2022, the government reversed its position on TMM’s mineral leases; the company is challenging that move. In February, TMM announced that it would pause the environmental review process while it defended its project in court. This was followed in August 2022 by TMM filing a lawsuit in the US District Court in Washington, DC, to reclaim its mineral leases.

In its latest application for the withdrawal of the lands—the successful application—the US Forest Service noted that:

The current requests for operational approvals represent new circumstances related to the potential for development of hardrock minerals on NFS land located within the Rainy River watershed. For the first time since the predecessor leases to the TMM Renewed Leases were issued in 1966, approval for an MPO is before the BLM and the Forest Service. At the time of the Regional Forester’s September 6, 2018 cancellation of the 2017 withdrawal application, Leases MNES-01352 and MNES-01353 had not been renewed, though the 2017 M-Opinion of the Solicitor had been issued. Additionally, there was no pending MPO. In September of 2018, the Regional Forester generally believed the Forest Service could effectively and efficiently address concerns over the effects of mining on a localized, case by case basis through the Forest Service’s statutory consent role. Now, the Forest Service and BLM are considering the approval of an MPO and related special use authorizations as well as the issuance of a new lease pursuant to the PRLA. Taken together, these requests demonstrate a very real current intent to actually develop a mine with a large footprint and decades-long useful life. Further, this currently active intent on the part of TMM will likely spur additional prospecting permit and lease requests to BLM, whether made by TMM or others, on nearby NFS lands. This is a far different context than that which existed at the time of the 2017 withdrawal application or its 2018 cancellation.

The Forest Service has new information, which it continues to gather, regarding the impacts of additional mining and exploration in the area on recreational uses and important resources such as water, air, wildlife, terrestrial and aquatic habitats, and native culture and food systems. The withdrawal is requested to protect those resources from the potential adverse effects of mining and exploration in the area, and in particular, potential effects of mining and exploration activities on three Endangered Species Act listed species and their habitats: the northern long-eared bat, listed as threatened in 2015; the Canada lynx, listed as threatened in 2000; and the gray wolf, most recently listed as threatened in 2015 and then delisted in 2020. New information includes but is not limited to disclosures associated with the MPO submitted by TMM in December of 2019 and the special use application. The Forest Service’s Northern Research Station has begun research activities, funded by current appropriations, directed to further mercury-sulfur interaction research and mitigation to lessen the health impacts of mercury by interrupting the biochemical process between sulfur and mercury. There may be potential impacts of broad-scale mineral development on the relevant lands that have not yet been fully studied.

… All these considerations, encompassing social, economic, cultural, and natural resource effects and legal implications, support the conclusion that a withdrawal order is a prudent and more comprehensive and efficient means to establish protection of National Forest resources from adverse mining impacts. Mining adjacent to BWCAW and MPA risks irreparable harm to irreplaceable wilderness and ecosystem integrity, values, and resources. Although the primary footprint of the proposed mines would be outside the BWCAW, there are critical linkages between aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems that are highly dependent on chemistry of water flowing through them. Large scale mining activity at the top of the watershed can cause many effects in the primary and secondary footprint related to water flow and chemistry (including aerial deposition) that will affect everything lower in the watershed. Given the high level of linkages between aquatic and terrestrial components of the ecosystem in the BWCAW, these effects will also extend into terrestrial vegetation and could cause an ecological cascade of effects to vegetation, wildlife, and rare species of plants and animals within the BWCAW wilderness. The expected extremes in precipitation and temperature due to warming climate are likely to exacerbate mining impacts, and reduce the resilience of forests and watersheds to disturbance caused by mining. Exercise of consent authority entails a piecemeal, project-specific approach that may result in similar protection but only at a more localized scale. Given the policy goals, resource considerations, and circumstances described above, a broader, more comprehensive approach to protect the ecological integrity of this area is warranted.

The public land order withdrawing portions of the Superior National Forest from operation of the mineral and geothermal leasing laws, subject to valid existing rights, is authorized by the Federal Land Policy and Management Act. The Secretary of the Interior has the authority to withdraw this area for a maximum of 20 years, subject to renewal. Only Congress can legislate a permanent withdrawal.