The U.S. Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture today announced important steps to protect the watershed of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW).
Officials of the agencies said the massive underground mine proposed along the Kawishiwi River is simply too close to the BWCAW. The project is within the BWCAW watershed that flows north into Canada, and critics have said that any polluted runoff from rock high in sulfur could taint the popular, lake-studded wilderness.
Citing broad concerns from thousands of public comments and input about potential impacts of mining on the wilderness area’s watershed, fish and wildlife, and the nearly $45 million recreation economy, the agencies today took actions that denied an application for renewal of two hard rock mineral leases in the area, as well as initiated steps to withdraw key portions of the watershed from new mineral permits and leases.
“The Boundary Waters is a natural treasure, special to the 150,000 who canoe, fish, and recreate there each year, and is the economic life blood to local business that depend on a pristine natural resource,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a joint statement with Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. “I have asked Interior to take a time out, conduct a careful environmental analysis and engage the public on whether future mining should be authorized on any federal land next door to the Boundary Waters.”
“Today’s best available science is helping us understand the value of the land and water and potential impacts of development in places like the Boundary Waters,” Jewell said. “This is the right action to take to avoid irrevocably damaging this watershed and its recreation-based economy, while also taking the time and space to review whether to further protect the area from all new mining.”
The BLM will review the withdrawal application and issue a notice in the Federal Register to segregate the lands – essentially, place them in a ‘time out’ – for up to two years, subject to valid existing rights. To preserve the status quo during that ‘time out,’ no new mineral exploration or development applications would be accepted while a thorough, scientific environmental analysis is conducted. Upon publication of the Federal Register notice, there will be an initial 90-day public review period for the proposed withdrawal and additional analysis during the segregation period that will include further public involvement, including public meetings. The next administration would have the option of revisiting the BLM’s decision, though any unilateral termination of the review would likely prompt a backlash.
Twin Metals Minnesota, a subsidiary of the Chilean mining giant Antofagasta, holds the two expired mineral leases dating to 1966. It applied for their renewal in 2012, and federal officials held two listening sessions in the state this summer and received more than 30,000 comments. Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton (D) came out against renewal, as did Minnesotan and former vice president Walter Mondale.
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