Twin Metals, a Minnesota company owned by Chilean mining titan Antofagasta Minerals, has dreams of striking valuable copper, nickel, and platinum near Ely. But the Obama administration last year delivered a lethal blow to that plan, denying Twin Metals’ mineral leases in part because this type of mining, which has never been done in Minnesota before, produces sulfuric acid byproducts that risk destroying the Boundary Waters.
Mining proponents clung to hope that the Trump administration would save the day. Twin Metals sued. Eighth District Congressman Rick Nolan, a Democrat, recently met with Trump’s Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke to appeal for renewing Twin Metals’ leases.
Mining advocates, like Ely Mayor Chuck Novak, are also looking to Trump to cancel a two-year study to determine whether 230,000 acres of the Superior National Forest should be spared from sulfide mining for the next 20 years.
Such a decision would place a lot of trust in Antofagasta, which, according to its record in Chile, would be a terribly stupid one.
Antogasta’s flagship mine, Los Pelambres, is responsible for many toxic spills in the Coquimbo region. The most serious occurred in 2009, when the mine dumped 13,000 liters of copper concentrate directly into the Choapa River.
In 2014, the Chilean Supreme Court found the mining giant guilty of cutting off water to the village of Caimanes when it built a waste dam upstream.
Two years later, Chile’s environmental regulation agency, Superintendencia del Medio Ambiente, charged Antofagasta with violating its environmental permits, including extracting water it wasn’t allowed to use and building unapproved wells. For that, Antofagasta could be fined $24 million.
According to the Chilean Archeological Society, Antofagasta also managed to destroy an enormous amount of human history when it dug up boulders bearing thousands of ancient rock paintings and buried the ruins of extinct cultures in order to construct a waste dam.
The Boundary Waters watershed may not have prehistoric artifacts, but it is a national treasure that supports 17,000 Minnesotans who work in tourism.
St Paul Congresswoman Betty McCollum, a Democrat, noted in a congressional environmental hearing Thursday that even in the United States, with its stringent safety regulations, 92 percent of sulfide-ore mines have failed in some way, polluting local waters.
During the hearing, which U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue attended, McCollum asked for a promise that the Trump administration would not put to a stop to the feds’ environmental review of sulfide mining near the Boundary Waters.
“And I know that you are receiving phone calls and that you are receiving pressure from the mining industry,” McCollum says. “We have a rich tradition of mining in Minnesota and this is the only mining in Minnesota I’ve come out forcefully against, in part because of its location in the watershed.”
To that, Perdue agreed.
“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,” he said. “No decision will be made prior to the conclusion of that.”
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