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Agencies to take comments on plan for Minnesota mining

Last Updated Mar 15, 2017 at 4:40 pm EDT

MINNEAPOLIS – Friends and foes of copper-nickel mining are mobilizing supporters for a meeting Thursday on a proposal aimed at protecting more than 234,000 acres of land near a pristine Minnesota wilderness area.

The U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management will take public comments on a potential 20-year ban on mining and prospecting on land that sits in a watershed that flows into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

President Barack Obama’s administration in December announced a two-year “time out” so federal agencies could study the issue. It also announced it would not renew mineral rights leases for the proposed Twin Metals mine near Ely.

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THE PROPOSAL

The Interior and Agriculture departments announced in December that they were taking steps to withdraw areas within the Rainy River watershed that are upstream from the Boundary Waters from consideration for new mineral permits or leases. Two decades is the longest the agencies could withdraw the lands in question, which are mostly south of the wilderness area. Congress would have to approve a permanent set-aside.

The agencies said they were responding to concerns about potential environmental damage. The vast but as-yet untapped reserves of copper, nickel and precious metals under northeastern Minnesota are locked up in sulfide-bearing minerals that can leach sulfuric acid and other pollutants when exposed to air and water. The agencies cited the risks to the pristine wilderness area and the $45 million recreational economy it supports.

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THE REACTION

Mining supporters say the proposal would have a devastating impact on future mining jobs in the area and that the minerals can be gotten without harming the environment.

“The Trump administration needs to do the right thing and rescind the withdrawal proposal. Period,” said Frank Ongaro, executive director of the trade group Mining Minnesota.

He said the ban is unnecessary because the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is already protected and because no formal mining proposals have been made for that area. Any specific plan would eventually undergo a rigorous environmental review.

Environmental groups welcomed the review. Jeremy Drucker, a spokesman for Save the Boundary Waters, said it should provide a good look at the value of the land as a cultural and recreational resource compared with the risks that mining would bring.

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THE MEETING

The Forest Service booked the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center due to the intense public interest that has drawn large crowds to previous forums on mining. Mining supporters have chartered buses to bring in people from Ely and Babbitt — communities in northeastern Minnesota that rely heavily on mining.

The Forest Service plans to hold another forum before the Aug. 17 deadline for public comments. The date and location haven’t been announced.

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OTHER IMPACTS

The proposal might cost Minnesota a lot of money for public education because the affected area includes state-owned “school trust lands.” The state puts revenues from mining and logging on those lands into a fund. Investment income from that fund supports schools statewide.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in 2011 estimated the fund’s potential revenue from copper-nickel mining in a formation known as the Duluth Complex, which includes the land in question, at $2.5 billion. The state has yet to calculate the loss to the fund resulting from the proposal.

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CHANGING THE DECISION

U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, a Democrat who represents northeastern Minnesota, was one of the original sponsors of legislation that created the Boundary Waters. But he supports mining outside the wilderness and is trying to persuade the Trump administration to reverse course.

Nolan said he expects to discuss the issue with new Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, a former Montana congressman who supports mining on federal lands.

Nolan said he won’t be at Thursday’s meeting but “will find a way to weigh in.”