DULUTH — Twin Metals Minnesota will get back its permits to explore for copper on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, and continue working toward a copper mine southeast of Ely, under a decision Friday by the U.S. Interior Department.
The move by the Trump administration reverses a decision to hold back the federal mineral leases that was made one year ago by the outgoing Obama administration.
The U.S. Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management withdrew mineral lease agreements from Twin Metals last year, essentially ending the company's effort to build a more-than-$2.8 billion mine that would employ up to 850 people.
The federal mineral leases are concentrated near Birch Lake, north and south of Minnesota Highway 1.
The new opinion from the Interior Department's solicitor general concludes that the two leases Twin Metals held from the United States for years, passed on from other companies, granted the company a "non-discretionary right" to another renewal and, therefore, the Bureau of Land Management did not have the discretion to deny Twin Metals' lease renewal in 2016.
Twin Metals and mining supporters said the company should be given the chance to develop its proposal, submit the plan for environmental review and apply for permits based on its own merits, not a generic opposition to mining near the BWCAW.
It's the latest in a yearlong line of Trump administration moves reversing environmental decisions by the Obama administration in the name of reducing regulation and spurring business interests — from shrinking national monuments to allowing oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, eliminating new automobile mileage standards and stopping efforts to reduce climate change.
"It's refreshing to have an administration that understands the importance of mining to Minnesota — and the entire United States," said Kurt Daudt, Republican Minnesota House speaker, in a statement. "I hope this is just the start of federal efforts to remove unnecessary obstacles to job creation and economic development so we can grow jobs and paychecks in Minnesota and across the country."
U.S. Rep. Mark Emmer, R-Minn., agreed.
"Minnesotans send our gratitude to the Department of the Interior for their action to reverse course set by the Obama administration and allow our great state to regain control of our mineral leases to advance responsible mining," Emmer said in a statement. The action demonstrates Trump's "commitment to unwind the politically motivated actions by the previous administration and put Minnesota and the nation on a path to prosperity for local economies and communities for generations to come."
But Friday's action was panned by environmentalists and others who say the mine stands too great a chance of polluting water that flows into the wilderness. That includes Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, who has opposed the Twin Metals project while allowing the PolyMet copper mine project just a few miles away to advance.
"This shameful reversal by the Trump administration shows that big corporate money and special interest influence now rule again in Republican-controlled Washington," Dayton said in a statement. "We will have to uncover why the financial interests of a large Chilean corporation, with a terrible environmental record, has trumped the need to protect Minnesota's priceless Boundary Waters Canoe Area."
Doug Niemela, national campaign chair of the group Save the Boundary Waters Wilderness, said his group would challenge the decision in court. He called the Trump administration move "a big, fat Christmas gift for a giant foreign mining corporation willing to do anything to exploit the watershed of Minnesota's crown jewel Wilderness. It runs contrary to fact, contrary to the law, and contrary to the views of Minnesota voters who love the Boundary Waters and rely on it for thousands of jobs, world-class hunting and fishing, and some of the cleanest water on Earth.''
It was less clear Friday if the Trump administration also will move to end a two-year moratorium on mining in the region imposed by the U.S. Forest Service, also by the outgoing Obama administration, one year ago.
Twin Metals spokesman Bob McFarlin said Friday that the company was still poring over the Interior Department decision and was withholding comment.
A bill in Congress that would end the moratorium and hand back the leases passed the full U.S. House in November, although it hadn't yet advanced in the Senate.
The action does not impact any area within the BWCAW, where mining remains prohibited.
Twin Metals is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Chile-based Antofagasta. The company has said it may be ready to submit the project for environmental review by 2018, if it is able to renew the leases.
In 2014, Twin Metals released the results of a "pre-feasibility" study on the mine, saying the project has substantial mineral reserves, would have a low cost of production and could turn a solid profit. The report said the proposed facility would mine about 50,000 tons of ore per day, a far larger operation than the proposed PolyMet open-pit mine about 20 miles to the southwest.
The Twin Metals mine is predicted to produce valuable minerals for at least 30 years — including an estimated 5.8 billion pounds of copper and 1.2 billion pounds of nickel along with platinum, palladium, gold and silver.