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DNR to complete independent review of Twin Metals

Twin Metals headquarters in Ely. (2017 file / News Tribune)

ST. PAUL — The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources plans to conduct an independent environmental review of the proposed Twin Metals copper-nickel mine near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Officials announced Friday, Nov. 22, they have informed federal agencies and Twin Metals Minnesota the DNR will proceed with a state-only environmental impact statement on the mine and dry-stacked tailings storage facility proposed to be built near Ely, within the Rainy River Watershed.

Any construction at Twin Metals is likely years away and hinges on whether state and federal regulators approve the project. Owned by Chilean mining conglomerate Antofagasta, Twin Metals has not formally applied for permits, but the company has said it plans to submit its mine plan of operations by the end of the year, which would trigger the yearslong permit process.

Opponents of the project argue toxic runoff from the mine and tailings would pollute the BWCAW. Once formal plans are submitted, the project will require environmental review under both the Minnesota Environmental Policy Act (MEPA) and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) before any permits are issued.

DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen said the federal review will be broader in scope, as it will also involve the conversion of mineral leases that don't need to be considered at the state level.

Additionally, officials said, there was some concern over the ability to conduct a thorough joint review, as the Trump Administration has sought to curtail the federal environmental review process.

"The credibility and transparency of this EIS process for the proposed Twin Metals project is critical to Minnesotans. We know this," Strommen told reporters on a conference call. "DNR is committed to ensuring a thorough, scientific and neutral overview of the proposal based on state law. And after reviewing all of the aspects related to this, we really believe that we can best accomplish that goal through separate EIS processes at the state and federal levels."

In a statement, Twin Metals said it shares the state's "commitment to an open, transparent and public process" and Friday's announcement "doesn't change that."

"The agencies that oversee the environmental review of our project have robust processes in place to ensure we are held to the highest of standards," the company said. "We look forward to fully engaging with agencies and the public in the coming years, and we ultimately believe that engagement will lead to the best project for Minnesota. We must meet or exceed all environmental standards, or our project will not proceed."

Despite the separate reviews, the DNR said it still expects close collaboration with the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to reduce duplication on matters including data submittals, analytical approaches and public participation opportunities. Officials said there is precedent for separate state and federal reviews, citing the Fargo-Moorhead Area Diversion Project as an example.

While Twin Metals already holds state and federal mineral leases for the site, the federal review will be broader in that it includes several prospecting leases that must still be converted into mineral leases before the project could come to fruition. That review is not needed at the state level.

Meanwhile, an executive order issued by President Trump in 2017 places limits on federal environmental impact statements. The order sets the expectation that most reviews will be completed in one year, with more complex cases getting an additional nine months. Most reviews are expected to be capped at 150 pages, while a few may expand to 300 pages.

DNR Deputy Commissioner Barb Naramore said there is potential for a waiver of those requirements, but DNR officials felt more comfortable moving forward with a separate review under state standards given the "number of outstanding uncertainties" at the federal level.

"There are questions about which agency is going to take the lead (and) what kind of timelines they're on," Naramore said. "So when we think about can we align our state MEPA process with the federal process, that combination of the leasing question and then the number of items we have some uncertainty about led us to conclude that to ensure a transparent and predictable and credible process, we felt that Minnesotans were going to be better served by doing our own independent process."

Environmental groups reacted with mixed feelings, criticizing the Trump Administration's environmental record but insisting even the state process is flawed.

"It's good that Gov. Walz recognizes that the Trump Administration can't be trusted to faithfully and with integrity do environmental review of a sulfide-ore copper mining near the Boundary Waters,” said Becky Rom, national chair of Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters.

“However, state standards are insufficient to protect the Wilderness from the inevitable industrial pollution that will flow from a copper mine next to this priceless natural resource. The state process acknowledges that projects will have a significant impact on landscapes and ecosystems, and it allows for air and water pollution in significant amounts."

Advancement of the proposed mine also hinges on litigation in federal court, where multiple lawsuits have been filed against the U.S. Department of the Interior by businesses and activist organizations challenging Twin Metals' hold of mineral leases. A December 2016 decision by the Obama Administration rescinded the leases over the risk it felt the mine presented to the BWCAW, but the Trump Administration later gave those leases back.

With those decisions looming, one of the plaintiffs welcomed the DNR's announcement but called it "presumptuous."

"Whether Twin Metals can legally mine on this public land is still disputed," said Chris Knopf, executive director of Friends of the Boundary Waters. "This foreign-owned mining company is acting as though they are entitled to Minnesota's land, and we are confident we will win our case and they will not mine."

Twin Metals said it has invested more than $450 million over the past decade with the goal of "developing these resources in an environmentally safe and sustainable manner."

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