We write in response to the editorial that appeared in the Star Tribune’s May 3, 2020 Sunday edition – “Federal secrecy is a red flag on mining”. The editorial writer calls on Minnesota Governor Walz to halt all state-level work on Twin Metals Minnesota’s proposed copper-nickel mining project near Ely and Babbitt because, the writer claims, the U.S. Forest Service denied a request by the Minnesota DNR to be provided information the Forest Service collected during a federal study begun under the Obama Administration that would have disclosed copper mining’s potential harm to the BWCA’s watershed.
I serve as the Chairman of Ely based UP NORTH JOBS INC. (upnorthjobs.org), a nonprofit, nonpartisan membership organization chartered in 2013 to promote economic development and job growth in Northeastern Minnesota. We are a member of JOBS FOR MINNESOTANS, a coalition of organizations brought together to advance economic development and job growth in Minnesota. We are advocates for natural resource-based industries such as mining, the forest products industry and energy infrastructure projects.
The Star Tribune editorial is sorely lacking in facts and context and suggests that the Trump Administration engaged in wrong-doing by not releasing information and data regarding a partially completed Programmatic Environmental Impact Study that was begun under the Obama Administration and ended by the Trump Administration in 2018. We offer additional facts to bring context to the Star Tribune’s editorial.
In December 2013, members of Ely based Northeastern Minnesotan’s for Wilderness (NMW), including Ely attorney Becky Rom, who presently chairs its Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, traveled to Washington, D.C. to meet with officials of the U.S. Department of Agriculture to discuss potential hardrock mining in the BWCAW watershed of the Superior National Forest.
Soon thereafter, on January 2014, NMW’s attorneys, Jenner & Block, sent a lengthy letter to the USDA asking them to “prepare an environmental impact statement (“EIS”) concerning potential hardrock mining in the Boundary Waters watershed in the Superior National Forest; that the EIS should take a programmatic (my emphasis) approach to assessing the potential impacts of hardrock mining on the Boundary Waters watershed in the Superior National Forest.”
In response to the lobbying by NMWE and their attorneys, a Programmatic Environmental Impact Study was begun under the Obama administration, but was cancelled by the Trump Administration on September 6, 2018. Results of the Study have never been released, despite efforts by Northeastern Minnesotan’s for Wilderness, Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, U.S. Congresswoman Betty McCollum (D-St. Paul) and the Star Tribune to restart the Study and have the findings released to the public.
In November 2019, Star Tribune opinion writer Jill Burcum, after spending time with anti-mining organizations in Ely, wrote an editorial on behalf of the Editorial Board; “Why Twin Metals’ mine proposal is a risk we can’t take”.
In March 2020, recently appointed Minnesota DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen, who formerly served as the policy director for Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, requested the U.S. Forest Service to share the information collected during the federal study. In an April 13, 2020 letter to the DNR, Robert Lueckel, the acting regional forester for the Eastern region in Milwaukee said the Forest Service would not be releasing the study because it was a “draft” that hadn’t been reviewed internally or “formally approved by the relevant agency decision makers.” Lueckel added that the study was of a different proposal, not the one Twin Metals submitted in December. “Finally, our staff resources are currently focused on efforts to conduct analyses and gather data for the current proposal.” Accordingly, the agency will decline the invitation to release incomplete draft documents and instead continue its analysis of the current pending proposal.”
In response, in their May 3, 2020 editorial, the Star Tribune’s Editorial Board called on Governor Walz to halt all state-level work on Twin Metals Minnesota’s mining project, a $1.7 billion dollar project employing 750 miners that will create an additional 1400 industry related jobs, a project in which Twin Metals has invested more than $450 million dollars in preparing a Mine Plan of Operations.
The Star Tribune editorial writer quotes former DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr who served under former Governor Mark Dayton, who vehemently opposed Twin Metals’ mining project. Landwehr now serves as the Executive Director of Ely based Northeastern Minnesotan’s for Wilderness that has long opposed Twin Metals’ mining project. “You share draft information all the time.” “It’s a general practice on these large federal and state projects.”
Doubling down, the editorial writer continues with this: “The response is also insulting to Minnesota scientists and the public, suggesting that they can’t be trusted to interpret data from a nearly completed study. But no one should be fooled by the maneuvering. There’s only one conclusion to draw from the secrecy: Science doesn’t support the project.”
So, is there scientific information available that was gathered during the Programmatic Environmental Impact Study by the Obama Administration, that found, as the Star Tribune’s Editorial Board has asserted, would threaten the waters of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness?
To understand why acting regional forester Robert Lueckel responded as he did to DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen’s request to release the partially completed Programmatic Environmental Impact Study, one must understand the process by which permits to mine are issued by the federal agencies.
It was intended by Congress in 1978 when the BWCAW was created and by the Forest Service in 2004 that mining operations would be allowed and are permitted on National Forest land outside of the BWCAW. Before a mining company can begin mining operations, they must submit and the Bureau of Land Management must approve the companies Mine Plan of Operations. If and when such occurs, the federal agencies will then and only then have information for a cumulative impacts analysis, which will be incorporated into an extensive site specific Environmental Impact Study.
In 2005, the Forest Service described a Programmatic Environmental Impact Study as being ineffective to evaluate environmental impacts concluding that, “ Environmental effects of projects and activities cannot be meaningfully evaluated without knowledge of the specific timing and location of the projects and activities; the use of a regional or programmatic approach for complying with NEPA [National Environmental Protection Act] was impractical, inefficient, and sometimes inaccurate: and was an inefficient use of resources; [the Forest Service can] most efficiently and appropriately evaluate and analyze the environmental consequences of an array of potential projects and activities when those matters reach the status of a proposal.” (See, 70, Fed. Reg., pgs. 1023,1031, 1041 (Jan. 5, 2005)).
Since the Programmatic Environmental Impact Study was made long before Twin Metals submitted their Mine Plan of Operations in December 2019, the results and conclusions contained in the Study were based on the speculations of those who did the Study, not on the facts and science. Simply put, the Study results were immaterial and are irrelevant to the federal permitting process.
The proper and right thing to do is for Governor Walz to direct Minnesota DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen to complete the permitting process associated with Twin Metals’ proposed mining project without further delay. Unnecessary delay by Minnesota and the Federal agencies to complete the process, will delay bringing badly needed jobs to Northeastern Minnesota citizens, and the benefit of the taxes and royalties that would be paid by Twin Metals Minnesota that are so critically needed to prevent the further deterioration of our communities and schools.
Gerald M. Tyler
Chairman, President & CEO
Up North Jobs Inc.