WASHINGTON — The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which will decide the future of mining within the Rainy River Watershed, was overwhelmed by the avalanche of letters. It received approximately 198,000.
They were so important that they were not made public by the agency until now, despite requests from MinnPost.
These letters were submitted during a January public comment period. They show the division between residents of Iron Range who fear contamination of Boundary Water Canoe Area Wilderness, and those concerned about the possibility of contamination.
Both the contents of the letters favored the implementation a 20-year mining ban on 225,378 acres Superior National Forest. This forest is located in a watershed which feeds the Boundary Waters Wilderness. Others supported the establishment of a large underground mine in this area. The Biden administration must consider all comments before it makes a final decision about whether or not to remove the forest area from mining. This decision is expected to be made by the end the year.
According to the Bureau, it had received 198.111 public comments. The majority of these comments were form letters that opposed or supported mining. According to the Bureau, 2,221 of these letters were not “original, unique responses”. All of these letters were sent to the U.S. Forest Service. This agency is part of the Department of Agriculture and will make a recommendation on the proposed moratorium. The final decision will be made by the Interior Department.
It could ban all mining in the area for 20 years or look at other options such as a shorter ban and a ban on only areas of the forest with few minerals.
The Biden administration stopped the renewal of Twin Metal leases in January. This would have allowed the company, Antofagasta (Chilean mining conglomerate), to start work on a mine for copper and nickel in the Superior National Forest. Twin Metal would be prevented from developing the copper-nickel resource, which is the largest in the world, and it would also put the area out of reach for other mining companies.
The flood of public comments letters to the bureau shows the extent of the effort to stop copper and nickel mining as well as the possibility of extraction of other metals from the Rainy River Watershed. They can be found from the Bronx to California, and almost everywhere in between. Even from abroad, they came from England, the Netherlands and other countries.
Environmental groups have worked hard to get their voices heard. Here are sample letters to encourage the federal government to prohibit mining on federal forestland covering 225,378 acres.
One letter stated that “the science shows copper-sulfide mine is a grave danger to the water-rich environemnt of northeastern Minnesota.” We cannot risk this national treasure to the short-term financial gains of the international mining sector.
Save the Boundary Waters also sent a sample letter. It stated that “I urge the BLM withdraw the 225 378 acres of national forests to protect the Boundary Waters against the threat of endless, sulfide ore copper mining polluting.”
A strong coalition of national and state environmental groups, including Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness and the Center for Biological Diversity, Earth Justice and the National Parks Conservation Association, Wilderness Society and Voyageurs Conservancy, is opposed to the proposed mining in Superior National. Becky Rom is the national chair of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters. She has been working for many years to create the coalition of environmentalists. Many of her neighbors are against her campaign, as she is a local resident of Ely. She stated that the coalition had 18 million members, and many people responded to calls to make comments.
Rom stated, “Many people want to help so we helped.” Rom said, “We offered people ways to express themselves.”
While environmental groups were flexing their muscles in the public comment campaign some people also weighed in, including David Haaversen from Two Harbors who stated that he has been vacationing in Boundary waters for 25 years.
Haaversen wrote, “There is no place in the world that moves me as much as the Boundary Waters or Quetico Park, just north of Canada.”
MinnPost was informed by him that he sent the letter to express his belief in “projects like this being very short-sighted” and that he agreed with Native American concepts of “looking forward seven generations in future.”
Secure the nation’s Future
Not all public comments requested a moratorium on mining in the Superior National Forest. Form letters were also submitted in opposition. There were also comments from individuals such as David Johnson who claimed he was a “fourth generation Elyite and retired miner.”
Johnson condemned the efforts to shift Iron Range’s economy from mining to tourism, and stated that efforts to curb mining had “seriously damaged our local economy” and its business community.
Johnson stated that “Tourism is not the driving force behind our local economic growth.”
Errol Sehnke, Superior, Wisconsin, wrote that he wanted comment because “My mother was once a sole schoolteacher in a one-room Isabella schoolhouse, Minnesota, located within the proposed withdrawal zone.”
Sehnke, like other supporters of mining, said that mining can be done safely. Sehnke also stated that the country needs the minerals to sustain its manufacturing industry and develop new technologies.
Sehnke wrote, “The USA must stand up and ensure its own future.”
Jason George, the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 49’s business manager, wrote a similar opposition to any attempt to ban mining in northeastern Minnesota.
George, like many Twin Metals supporters, asked the federal government for a study of the potential risk from that particular mine rather than focusing on larger risks that mining could pose to the region.
Opponents to forest development point out that copper, nickel, and other ores are mined in rock that contains sulfurides. These sulfides can generate acid when exposed to water and air, which could lead to the formation of toxic metals in the water.
Twin Metals claims that its plans to build a massive, undergrown mine operation are safe.
George asked the Interior Department for an analysis of the economic potential of the proposed mine. However, George acknowledged that “the primary goal of the environmental analysis is not to examine the potential benefits of these mining operations.”
George said that they were too important to ignore, especially considering the minimal risks associated with mining projects that are approved through Minnesota’s strict permitting process. “Many of our members have been living on the Iron Range for their entire lives. They consider mining a vital part of their community.”
George stated that he knew of a lot of opposition to mining in Superior National Forest. However, he said “90-plus%” of those comments were from outside the region.
George’s union includes more than 14,000 heavy-equipment operators from Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota.
Native Americans at Risk
The U.S. Forest Service published a preliminary environmental assessment last month of the withdrawal area. According to the Forest Service, the entire area is within the borders of the territory that was ceded by the federal government to three Objiwe tribes in an 1854 treaty. The land is not owned by the tribes, but they are allowed to hunt, fish, and gather on it. According to the environmental assessment, this would be endangered if the Rainy River Watershed was polluted. This would also impact the harvesting and use of wild rice, which is a tribal staple. According to the report, pollution poses a “disproportionately adverse risk to Native American communities and low-income ones.”
Public comments are now being accepted on the Forest Service study until August 12, and will be considered by the agency when it drafts its final report.
Sometimes, however, it can have serious consequences to weigh in on the contentious issue of withdrawal.
A letter was written last year by a tribal leader in support of legislation sponsored D-4 by Betty McCollum. This bill would permanently remove the area from copper-nickel mining. However, the letter was met with backlash. Opponents of the legislation boycotted tribal casinos and other enterprises.
Tadd Johnson, assistant professor of American Indian Studies, University of Minnesota, said that they lost a lot of businesses and were hammered.
The Bois Forte Band, which is the closest band to Twin Metals’ proposed mine, didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment. Johnson stated that the Chippewa tribes oppose the mine.
McCollum states that legislation is necessary to ensure that a permanent full moratorium is in place. With the approval of the House Natural Resources Committee, her bill moved forward.
So far, however, the Senate has not yet received a companion bill. Minnesota Sens. Tina Smith and Amy Klobuchar, both Democrats, are currently reviewing the Forest Service report, and other studies, and have yet to make a commitment to sponsor legislation.
A spokesperson for Klobuchar stated that Senator Klobuchar supports science-based environmental reviews of projects near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. “As she stated previously, we must ensure that existing Iron Ore Mining is not adversely impacted by this review process.”
It is not clear whether taconite mining in the Superior National Forest would be permitted if there was a moratorium. McCollum claims that the iron ore ban in McCollum’s legislation does not apply to it.
Rep. Peter Stauber (R-8 ), who represents the Iron Range has fiercely fought McCollum and the Biden administration’s attempts to impose a mining ban. He stated that there is a way to stimulate economic development, provide the nation with the minerals it needs, and protect the environment.
Stauber stated, “We know that mining had problems in the past.” “But when we learn how to do better, it’s easier.”