The Trump administration on Thursday lifted a roadblock to copper-nickel mining near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness of northeastern Minnesota, reversing a decision made in the final days of the Obama administration.
The Obama administration in late 2016 withdrew around 234,000 acres of the Rainy River watershed near Ely from eligibility for mineral leasing pending a two-year study, citing the potential threat from acid mine drainage to the nearby Boundary Waters, the country's most-visited wilderness area. The move could have led to a 20-year ban on mining and prospecting on the land.
The most immediate beneficiary is Twin Metals Minnesota, which hopes to build a copper-nickel-precious metals mine south of Ely. It plans to submit its first formal mining plan to regulators in the next 18 months.
The land is part of the Superior National Forest, which is controlled by the U.S. Forest Service, an agency under the Department of Agriculture. The USDA canceled the withdrawal Thursday, saying its review revealed no new scientific information and that interested companies may soon be able to sign mineral leases in the area.
"It's our duty as responsible stewards of our environment to maintain and protect our natural resources. At the same time, we must put our national forests to work for the taxpayers to support local economies and create jobs," Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a statement.
The decision had been expected. President Donald Trump said at a campaign rally in Duluth in June that his administration would soon rescind the withdrawal.
The Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, The Wilderness Society and allied groups denounced the decision as a sellout to foreign corporate interests. They blasted the agency for failing to complete the study, despite Perdue's assurances to a congressional committee in May 2017 that it would and that no decision would be made until it was finished.
"The Trump Administration broke its word to us, to Congress, and to the American people when it said it would finish the environmental assessment and base decisions on facts and science," Alex Falconer, executive director of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, said in a statement.
Forest Service spokesman Brady Smith said the agency determined that there was no need to complete the assessment, based on what it had learned over the last 15 months. But he said the Forest Service met its obligations to conduct a scientific analysis that included multiple opportunities for public feedback.
U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, the lead Democrat on a subcommittee that funds the Forest Service, issued a statement accusing Perdue of breaking his promise to her panel, "bending to political pressure from a foreign mining company and abandoning sound science." She said Perdue's word "cannot be trusted."
But Twin Metals, which is owned by the Chilean mining company Antofagasta, welcomed the decision, which will also give a freer hand to other companies that have conducted exploratory drilling in the area.
"This important action ensures that federal lands that have been open to responsible mining activity for decades will remain open, offering the Iron Range region the potential for thousands of new jobs and billions of dollars in economic growth," Twin Metals CEO Kelly Osborne said in a statement.
The Trump administration in May reinstated two key mineral leases for Twin Metals that the Obama administration had declined to renew. Environmental groups are challenging that decision in court.
The Twin Metals project is not as advanced as the planned PolyMet mine, which would become Minnesota's first copper-nickel mine if it gets final approval of its permits. PolyMet sits several miles away in a different watershed.