Ever since copper deposits were found in northeast Minnesota in the 1940s, mining companies have been trying to get their hands on them.
The problem: these lucrative reserves of copper, nickel, and platinum lie dangerously close to the Boundary Waters, a million acres of some of the nation’s most pristine fresh water wilderness.
Unlike the Iron Range’s traditional taconite mining, copper-nickel mining is an irredeemable environmental hazard, resulting in a plague of sulferic acid to wildlife, wild rice, and fresh water.
Twin Metals, a Chilean mining company with a hallowed reputation for creating jobs in the north country, has been leasing land from the federal government for the past 50 years. In the past, the federal Department of the Interior has approved Twin Metals’ lease each time it’s come up for renewal.
But now Twin Metals has designs on building an underground labyrinth dedicated to copper-nickel mining, which has never been attempted before in Minnesota. This time, it’s coming up against fierce opposition from the Boundary Waters tourism industry, hunters and anglers associations, conservationists, and Governor Mark Dayton.
The federal Bureau of Land Management is the agency with authority to approve or deny Twin Metal’s application for a lease renewal. The bureau is in turn subject to the U.S. Forest Service, which oversees the Superior National Forest – where Twin Metals intends to mine.
This summer, the U.S. Forest Service sided with environmentalists in turning down Twin Metals’ proposal.
So Twin Metals is suing the United States and a handful of federal departments, claiming that it has an unalienable right to do business in Minnesota as it pleases. The company claims it's entitled to mandatory renewal of its mineral leases.
Chief among its complaints is the Department of the Interior’s March legal opinion that Twin Metals is not actually “entitled” to do anything without the Bureau of Land Management’s say-so.
“If not overturned, the Solicitor [of the Department of the Interior]’s unlawful opinion would eviscerate Twin Metals’ long-standing federal mineral rights in Northeast Minnesota,” according to a news release. “[It would] deprive Minnesota of hundreds of jobs and billions of dollars in environmentally-responsible economic growth and prevent access to one of the world’s largest sources of copper, nickel and platinum, which are of strategic importance to the U.S. economy and national defense.”
Interestingly, Twin Metals’ lawsuit contradicts its own internal documents from 2014 (section 4.3.2).
In its pre-feasibility study on the proposed copper-nickel mine, Twin Metals had written, clear as day, “Subject to applicable laws and regulations, [the Bureau of Land Management] has discretion as to whether to issue or renew any prospecting permit and any preference right lease, as well as discretion with respect to the terms and conditions to be included in any such prospecting permits and preference right leases. Issuance and renewal of prospecting permits and preference right leases also are subject to review by the United States Forest Service under applicable federal law.”