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A controversial mining project near Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness may be dead after the Biden administration canceled two mineral leases on Wednesday.
The decision, filed by the Department of the Interior in the U.S. Court of Appeals, marks a significant victory for environmental groups who opposed the project. Ecologists and wildlife advocates have argued that proposed copper and nickel mines operated by the mining firm Twin Metals Minnesota would contaminate the one-million-acre wildlife preserve.
“Today is a major win for Boundary Waters protection,” said Becky Rom, national chair of the conservation group Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, in a release. “This action by the Biden administration re-establishes the long-standing legal consensus of five presidential administrations and marks a return of the rule of law. It also allows for science-based decision-making on where risky mining is inappropriate.”
The legal fight over the project spanned decades and saw multiple reversals in policy.
Mineral leases first issued in 1966 were eventually purchased by Twin Metals Minnesota, a subsidiary of Chilean mining conglomerate Antofagasta, which in the early 2000s drilled millions of feet of core samples on the land. The project was halted in 2016 when the Obama administration denied Twin Metals’ application to renew the leases. But the Trump administration reversed that decision and renewed the leases just three years later.
U.S. interior secretary Deb Haaland said the Trump administration made a mistake in reinstating the leases.
“We must be consistent in how we apply lease terms to ensure that no lessee receives special treatment,” Haaland said in a press release. “After careful legal review, we found the leases were improperly renewed in violation of applicable statutes and regulations, and we are taking action to cancel them.”
No mines were ever built on the two leased parcels of land, one of which sits directly adjacent to the wilderness area and the other of which is located five miles from its border. The proposed mines would have tapped minerals that are in high demand for use in electric vehicles.
The mining project lacked popular support, and a 2020 poll conducted by the Minneapolis Star Tribune showed that 60 percent of registered voters in the state opposed building mines near the Boundary Waters, while just 22 percent supported such projects.
But labor groups were in favor, and Brian Hanson, chairman of Jobs for Minnesotans, told the Star Tribune that his group was “outraged” by the decision to stop the mining project.
“It’s the latest in a recent series of attacks on the accessibility of critical minerals, and people of northeast Minnesota, for that matter. It doesn’t make sense to make this kind of decision in the face of a country needing to deal with climate change and needing strategic minerals to do so,” he said.
According to a statement issued by Twin Metals Minnesota, it plans to appeal the decision.
The Boundary Waters is one of the largest swaths of uninterrupted wilderness in the country and a popular destination for paddlers, hikers, and anglers. In a 2019 Outside feature on the destination, written by Minnesota-based contributor Stephanie Pearson, explorer Paul Schurke expressed his love for the land and noted why it holds such a cherished place in the hearts of many:
“You’re up close and personal every step of the way with the boreal forest, the pristine waters, the exquisite flora and fauna, and the endless shades of blue, green, and brown,” Schurke said. “It’s wilderness that’s accessible physically and emotionally to people of all ages.”