Beneath the dense and dusky hush of the Superior National Forest is a sprawling fortune of copper- and nickel-bearing ores weighing more than 4.4 billion tons.
Our smart phones and computers rely on these metals. They’re used in our water and power infrastructure, as well as the wind turbines and solar cells ushering in the world’s green revolution.
Although northeastern Minnesota’s reserves are considered low-grade, with the desired minerals composing just .4 percent of their host rock, Chilean copper conglomerate Antofagasta believes they’re profitable enough to mine.
Much of what the company has in store is closely guarded information. Antofagasta wants to secure federal land leases prior to publishing formal plans.
Nevertheless, in 2014 Canadian regulators forced the project’s former owner to reveal technical details. Twin Metals has its sights set on deposits just outside the small town of Ely. A flyover shows a green expanse of untamed forest, perforated by Birch Lake, the White Iron Chain of Lakes, and the Kawishiwi River.
The proposed mine will be an underground operation. It’ll need an ore-crushing facility, a waste storage pit upstream of Lake Superior, and a network of roads, rail, and pipelines to connect it all.
Raw metals produced here will be sold to smelters in China, Russia, and other usual destinations. Minnesota won’t profit from the trade of its minerals. But there will be jobs. Antofagasta claims the region will get nearly 2,000 direct and indirect positions over 30 years.
There will also be sacrifice.
The mine will be built in the Rainy River watershed, which drains into the Boundary Waters, a glacially sculpted waterscape of primitive wilderness given the United States’ highest order of protection. Unlike traditional iron ore mining, copper is found in sulfur-bearing rocks. When snow and rain run off stockpiles and waste pits of pulverized copper ore, the byproduct is sulfuric acid, a pollutant with the ability to silence ecosystems.
Worldwide, not a single copper mine has perfected the practice, with nearby waters often requiring perpetual treatment for toxins. Hardrock metal mining is America’s largest source of hazardous waste, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Though the desert states of the American west have some experience, Minnesota has never attempted it.
Instead, the Arrowhead Region has built a $44.5 million economy around the Boundary Waters, employing more than 12,000 people in outdoor recreation. Thirty resorts, outfitters, and outdoor excursion schools are located in the immediate vicinity of the site. The gateway cities of Ely, Tofte, and Grand Marais have become highly dependent on the wilderness.
When asked to consider the fate of their natural resources, an overwhelming 70 percent of Minnesotans oppose Twin Metals, according to a 2018 survey conducted by Republican pollster Fabrizio Ward, who advised Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. That includes 56 percent of the 8th congressional district, home of the Iron Range.
But Twin Metals doesn’t need residents’ approval.
Within the first month of Trump taking office, granting Antofagasta’s land rights became a priority. Scientific and economic reviews were canceled. Public opinion and opposition from four Chippewa tribes were ignored.
Meanwhile, Minnesota’s environmental standards were never intended to protect wilderness areas, lands set aside by Congress in 1964 to be places where “the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Former state regulators say federal acquiescence all but ensures that Twin Metals will be in business.
A sudden heist
The discovery of riches underpinning the thin soils of the Arrowhead predates the birth of Minnesota.
When surveyors stumbled upon a vein of copper on the North Shore in the mid-19th century, mining companies began lobbying the nascent United States to strike a deal with the resident Ojibwe. Faced with the alternative of a protracted fight and forcible ejection to the harsh Canadian plains, tribes relinquished vast territory in return for reservations and the right to hunt, fish, and gather within the boundaries of their ancestral land.
Nevertheless, the North Shore copper rush never arrived. The metals were of low quality, located deep in the earth. Technology didn’t exist to make it worth the effort.
In 1966, the feds gave 20-year mining leases to a company called INCO, but market uncertainty precluded actual production. The leases changed hands. They expired and were renewed twice for 10-year terms. Companies explored, drilled, and ran tests. Still, mining didn’t commence.
It wasn’t until Antofagasta purchased the project in 2014 that someone finally advanced a serious plan.
But times had changed. Native rights in ceded lands, which the United States mostly disregarded until the 1970s, were now to be acknowledged. The 1966 leases also predated many of America’s environmental laws, including the landmark National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires federal agencies to take a hard look at any decision that could significantly impact the natural world.
Twin Metals had never undergone a fundamental environmental analysis. In order to renew its leases, Antofagasta needed to submit to one.
The Forest Service had to decide whether copper mining made sense in the Boundary Waters’ watershed. Numerous studies had already been done on the ramifications of sulfide-ore mining, as well as the fragility of the wilderness. They informed Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell’s 2016 judgment, which was an emphatic rejection of Twin Metals.
The Boundary Waters, Tidwell wrote, were a living laboratory and refuge for endangered species. They hold North America’s greatest diversity of songbirds, 10,000-year-old Paleoindian cultural sites, and one-fifth of the national forest system’s fresh water. Its lakes are so soft and pure that they lack any naturally occurring alkaline minerals, such as calcium, that could counterbalance acidic mine seepage.
Tidwell found the inherent risks of “serious and irreplaceable harm” to be “unacceptable.”
At the same time, the U.S. Department of Agriculture considered withdrawing 234,000 acres of Superior National Forest land from mining for 20 years. It launched a two-year environmental review under NEPA. The agency also solicited public feedback, gathering more than 80,000 comments—98 percent of which supported the moratorium.
Twin Metals sued, claiming the U.S. had no right to refuse. Despite its own 2014 technical report stating that federal agencies could practice “discretion” based on environmental law, the company insisted it was entitled to automatic renewal of its leases.
Then-solicitor of the Department of the Interior, Hilary Tompkins, disagreed, pointing out that the opportunity to renew was predicated on mining actually taking place. Since lease holders didn’t live up to their part of the bargain for over 50 years, it made no sense for the United States to enter into another contract.
Then Donald Trump assumed office.
Anticipating that the Forest Service’s ongoing study may soon come under threat, St. Paul Congresswoman Betty McCollum exacted a promise from new Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue to protect it.
“I’m not smart enough to know what to do without the facts base and the sound science and we are absolutely allowing that to proceed,” Perdue told a congressional committee. “No decision will be made prior to the conclusion of that [study].”
Yet Perdue canceled the study last fall—when it was 80 percent complete. A short news release declared, “The analysis did not reveal new scientific information.” Mining exploration would be allowed to continue.
McCollum protested, arguing that the absence of new information should not have overturned previous findings that copper mining was too dangerous for the Boundary Waters. The Trump administration refused to elaborate.
Few jobs versus many jobs
Twin Metals’ appeal to northeastern Minnesota is one of regional pride, steeped in longing for bygone prosperity.
According to the company, copper mining is but an evolution of the Iron Range’s 130-year taconite heritage, which reached its peak in the 1940s as Minnesota miners extracted the iron ore needed to meet wartime demand for steel. Those were the days when mining companies worked shoulder-to-shoulder with civic leaders to equip resilient communities with schools, hospitals, and parks.
Wielding the finest modern technology, Twin Metals could both revitalize the economy and protect the ecosystem, the company claims. Producing copper in the United States, with its rigorous protections, is a moral alternative to relying on developing countries, which have no problem razing rainforests that stand in the way of minerals.
Many peer-reviewed studies contradict the company line.
Harvard Professor James Stock investigated Twin Metals’ claims last year. He found a striking imbalance between the few, temporary jobs produced by mining and the many, enduring jobs in outdoor recreation.
Erring on the conservative side, Stock says he omitted many variables unfavorable to Twin Metals, such as the impact of potential spills on cabin owners’ property values, the price of clean water, and the rise of automation in underground mines.
Still, he concluded that the extractive nature of copper mining, with its inevitable boom-bust cycles, would leave the region economically worse off in the end. Especially since there’s no guarantee mining jobs would be reserved for locals.
Nor have copper mines seen any major technological advancements within the last 20 years, says Dr. David Chambers, a geophysicist with the Center for Science in Public Participation.
Twin Metals plans to extract copper ores, grind them down to the consistency of beach sand, and separate the metal using a water-intensive chemical process. The slurry left behind will be disposed of in part by mixing it with acid-neutralizing cement, then using it to backfill tunnels blasted underground. The rest would be pumped through a pipeline to a permanent reservoir with a liner.
These are standard practices, in no way foolproof, Chambers says. All liners eventually leak through their welded seams, and are susceptible to puncture by rocks and heavy machinery. Sulfides also eat through cement.
Twin Metals’ desire to build an upstream dam for its waste basin is particularly worrisome, Chambers says. This is the cheapest but least secure type of construction, responsible for two Brazilian mine disasters within the past five years, as well as the 2014 Mount Polley breach, which dumped billions of gallons of toxic waste into an immaculate Canadian lake.
In 2012, Earthworks researcher Bonnie Gestring reviewed self-reported accidents from all American copper mines that had operated for more than five years. She found 14 out of 14 had leaked—many of them repeatedly—due to power outages, ruptured pipes, valve failures, and collapsed dams. The aftermath: decimated migratory bird sanctuaries in Utah, contaminated drinking wells in Arizona, and the complete loss of aquatic life in stretches of the Colorado River.
Tellingly, Wisconsin passed a “Prove It First” law in 1998, requiring mining companies to find a single example of a sulfide project that didn’t leak as a condition of permitting. Twenty years later, the legislature under former Gov. Scott Walker repealed it after none could pass the bar.
Flushing even small amounts of mine waste into the Boundary Waters could quickly acidify the ecosystem and potentially wipe out walleye, bass, trout, and northern pike. Releasing sulfates would also kill wild rice and feed algal growth, muddying lakes so clear that people now drink from them without filtration.
Twin Metals asserts that preliminary tests show its waste would be non-acid-generating, but declined to offer any proof.
Dr. Eric Morrison, a chemist who works for Water Legacy, calls the company’s claim “absurd.”
A long-closed iron mine once drilled in the immediate vicinity of Twin Metals’ site while looking for taconite. The remains of that mine continue to discharge sulfate in concentrations 100 times greater than the state safety standards, according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.
This demonstrates that area deposits carry a lot of sulfur, Morrison says. By intentionally targeting sulfide-ores, Twin Metals’ footprint could be far greater.
Twin Metals also enters an Iron Range much changed from its heyday, when unions negotiated for company towns replete with social benefits to keep the locals happy.
Corporations don’t talk about “social license” the same way anymore, says Macalester College Professor Roopali Phadke. Modern mines focus on promoting their job opportunities rather than all-around community service. Today, as communities grow closer and resources shrink, the impact of mining extends far beyond the borders of a single town.
And while proponents argue that extracting minerals in America pulls incentive for deforestation and forced labor in less developed countries, Phadke disagrees. There’s no simple trade-off, she says.
Phadke says it’s more efficient to recycle metals than process them from scratch, saving water, energy and landfill space. The European Union leads the world in recycling copper.
The price of wild water
Andronico Luksic, Antofagasta’s billionaire owner, purchased a $5.5 million mansion in Washington D.C.’s upscale Kalorama neighborhood in December 2016.
Donald Trump was president-elect at the time. The Wall Street Journal reported that even before Luksic obtained the necessary landlord license to collect rent, the mansion was leased to Trump’s daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner.
This revelation motivated independent researcher Louis V. Galdieri, who had been studying the proliferation of sulfide mining around Lake Superior, to wonder how much influence Antofagasta wielded behind the scenes. He began filing Freedom of Information Act requests for federal officials’ emails and schedules.
They revealed that Twin Metals was already a priority for the new Department of the Interior less than three weeks after Trump assumed office. In April 2017, Antofagasta's CEO met with the American ambassador to Chile. The following month, the Antofagasta team was received in Washington, after which the White House “expressed interest” in the mine.
Throughout that year, Antofagasta and its lobbyists at WilmerHale spent extensive time calling and meeting with Interior officials. In contrast, conservation groups appeared in the department’s schedule twice.
One internal email from Kathleen Benedetto, special assistant to the secretary of Interior, distilled their concerns down to a sentence—“The people opposed to the project believe the underground mining operation will contaminate the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness area.”
The following December, Interior issued a legal opinion relinquishing the United States’ own authority to choose whether Antofagasta should have access to federal land.
This timeline paints the picture of a political about-face, Galdieri says. “They made a decision that they would not respect science. Instead, they would meet with industry and ask industry what it wanted to do.”
Congressmember Betty McCollum has repeatedly asked the departments of the Interior and Agriculture to produce the science that informed their decision, and release the previous administration’s ill-fated comprehensive review.
“The abrupt cancellation implies that the mounting evidence against mining that emerged did not support your position, and so you instead chose to waste taxpayer funds, ignore public comments, and suppress scientific information rather than have this evidence revealed to the public,” she wrote in March.
The administration hasn’t complied.
McCollum is part of a roster of state officials who have promoted every mining proposal to come Minnesota’s way—with the sole exception of Twin Metals. It includes U.S. Senators Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith, former Gov. Mark Dayton, who denied the project access to state lands, and current Gov. Tim Walz.
This year, both commissioners of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and Department of Natural Resources retired from government service and joined conservation groups. Each has implied that state regulators lack the authority to account for the cumulative effects of sulfide mining on water, life, and the intrinsic value of the wilderness law “Leave No Trace.”
The state environmental review doesn’t ask those big-picture questions. It makes no economic comparisons. It cares only whether a project can claim to meet state standards, which mean little in the context of the Boundary Waters. For example, Minnesota rules limit sulfate in wild rice waters to 10 milligrams per liter, but because the Boundary Waters are so pristine, even meeting that regulation would mean unprecedented degradation.
Minnesota also requires mining companies to make financial assurances for closure and cleanup once resources are exhausted. New mines must set up trust funds in case of accidental spills. Compared to many other states where companies simply abandon mines when they’re through, having a law like that is exceptional.
Yet no amount of money could repair the deep stretches of the Rainy River watershed, says Tom Landwehr, a former DNR commissioner who recently joined the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters as its executive director.
Sulfates dissolve in water. They can’t be vacuumed out like an oil slick on the Mississippi River. An accident would come with incalculable cost.
“If the federal government doesn’t take that first step and say, ‘Should we be mining here at all,’ the state doesn’t get into that,” Landwehr says. “State standards are not intended to protect the wilderness. State standards all anticipate that there will be some change in the water quality, air quality, noise, and all those things are accepted.”
Last winter, the Department of the Interior released a brief “environmental assessment” on Twin Metals. But since it had already made a non-negotiable decision to renew the mine’s leases, the purpose was to merely offer additional stipulations. Twin Metals would now have to abide by environmental laws passed since the 1970s, and permit tribal researchers to conduct archeological surveys.
This assessment did not mention the sulfur content of the local geology or acid’s impact on wildlife, except to say that these things worried some members of the public. It cited only one scientific study—a paper compiled by Golder Associates, a company that works for Twin Metals.
Nearly 100,000 Americans submitted responses over a monthlong public comment period. They are currently under review. Regardless, the Department of the Interior is expected to formally renew Twin Metal’s leases this summer.
So nine small businesses and five conservation organizations are suing to intervene, a tactic proven effective due to the Trump administration’s penchant for ignoring federal rules. According to New York University, the president has lost 95 percent of the cases in which he’s been challenged with violating federal procedure.
That Minnesotans should have so little say is also unique. In other parts of the country, federal agencies have protected lands due to public pushback and unfavorable science. Not long ago, the Forest Service rejected oil and gas drilling in Nevada’s Ruby Mountains after that project received thousands of comments.
“Receiving so many comments shows how engaged the public is with this project,” according to a Forest Service statement. “Their involvement is critical in getting a firm understanding of what concerns our communities have, what they value, and how our work and decisions can best serve their needs.”
Last fall, then-Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke issued a 20-year mining moratorium for “Paradise Valley,” more than 30,000 acres of land in his home state of Montana. Known as a gateway to Yellowstone National Park, it was considered too precious to mine.
“Access to public lands and water has allowed the Paradise Valley to build a world-class hunting, fishing, tourism, and recreation economy,” Zinke announced, nearly parroting the movement to preserve the Boundary Waters.
“I fully support multiple use of public lands, but multiple use is about balance and knowing that not all areas are right for all uses. There are places where it is appropriate to mine and places where it is not.”
Twin Metals intends to submit its formal plan and begin its quest for state permits later this year.