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A 20-Year Ban on Mining Near the Boundary Waters Is Back. Here’s Why That Matters.

The government reinstated Obama-era protections near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

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Last week, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland reinstated an Obama-era order to prevent new mineral leases on 225,504 acres of Minnesota’s Superior National Forest for the next 20 years, handing a victory to mining opponents who said new mineral extraction could foul the watershed of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is the most visited wilderness area within the United States, and a bucket-list destination for canoe campers. But mining near the watershed could distribute large amounts of waste into the surrounding area, including compounds like sulfuric acid, heavy metals, and sulfate. In turn, these materials may disrupt local ecosystems and pollute local groundwater, making it unsafe to drink. 

The lands and resources in and around the Boundary Waters have been a heated topic of discussion for Minnesotans and national conservation groups alike. Some locals and tribal governments like the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe have staunchly opposed mining and pushed for restrictions.

At the center of this debate is Twin Metals, a company that had hoped to open a new mine near the Boundary Waters to extract copper and nickel. Although the latest restrictions put an end to any fresh development in the impacted area, it seems unlikely that Twin Metals, which fought to overturn the Obama administration’s restrictions, will give up; the company has since sued to reinstate its leases.

Some advocates of the new mine point to the economic opportunities that it could create, citing research that shows that mining has boosted growth in towns with similar operations. They also point to the importance of copper and nickel in creating batteries for electric cars renewable energy projects.

Last year, Julie Padilla, chief regulatory officer for Twin Metals told MPR News: “The World Bank has said we’re going to need as much copper in the next 25 years as we’ve mined in the last 5,000. And every year, we can produce enough nickel for 280,000 electric vehicles from this project.” 

Supporters of mining restrictions in this area point to a Harvard study that showed that the economic opportunities that would come from mining in Ely would likely be short-lived, ending with a net negative impact just 20 years after mining production begins.

Haaland stated in a news release: “The Department of the Interior takes seriously our obligations to steward public lands and waters on behalf of all Americans. Protecting a place like Boundary Waters is key to supporting the health of the watershed and its surrounding wildlife, upholding our Tribal trust and treaty responsibilities, and boosting the local recreation economy.”

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