Ex-Forest Service chief at House hearing: Don’t make Boundary Waters testing ground for acid mine drainage

By: - February 5, 2020 1:57 pm

Minnesota Boundary Waters. Photo by Peter de Sibour, courtesy of Explore Minnesota.

WASHINGTON — In late 2016, just before the Obama administration exited, the chief of the Forest Service issued formal opposition to a mining company’s bid to renew a lease near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Then-Forest Service chief Thomas Tidwell, a 40-year veteran of the agency, determined that the potential environmental risk to the iconic wilderness area was “unacceptable.” Other top administration officials agreed, rejecting the lease’s renewal and kicking off a scientific review of whether to ban future mining operations in the region.

But the Trump administration quickly reversed course.

The new administration renewed the leases for the proposed copper and nickel mining project by Twin Metals Minnesota, a subsidiary of Chilean mining giant Antofagasta. It would process 20,000 tons of ore per day from an underground mine on the doorstep of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

The Trump team also halted work on the scientific review of whether to impose a broader mining ban and shut down attempts from Democratic lawmakers to force completion and release of that study.

The moves struck Tidwell as unusual, he told members of Congress at a hearing on Capitol Hill Wednesday.

“The administration has refused to disclose the findings of any of that evidence to either Congress or the public,” Tidwell said. “If this review had truly suggested that sulfide ore copper mining does not threaten the Boundary Waters, then I would assume they would simply have completed and released the study.”

Tidwell warned that a review of 14 operating U.S. sulfide-ore copper mines showed that 100% of them had experienced pipeline spills or accidental releases. And 13 out of 14 of them experienced failures to control contaminated mine seepage, leading to harmful water quality impacts.

The environmental impacts could be even more severe in the Boundary Waters region, Tidwell warned, given the “very wet environment and interconnected hydrogeology.”

Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) accused Tidwell and others of citing the findings of a study by Earthworks, an environmental advocacy group.

Gosar noted that the study surveyed mines initiated decades ago. Technologies “have come a long, long way,” he said, accusing Tidwell of letting bias influence his decisions. “That’s sad,” Gosar said.

Tidwell replied that his 2016 decision opposing the mine was based on the science that was current at that time. If there’s new environmental technology, he added, it should be tested and proven somewhere that’s less vulnerable than the Boundary Waters region.

“My concern is that this area, the risk is just too high,” Tidwell said.

‘What information is being hidden?’

Tidwell testified to the House Natural Resources Committee that he’s supporting legislation from Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), which would ban mining for copper, nickel and precious metals across 200,000 acres of the Superior National Forest in northeastern Minnesota.

McCollum also testified before the committee, where she warned that “one mistake, one failure, one flaw” by mining interests could mean an “environmental disaster” for the region. And she slammed the administration for failing to release its study as promised. “What information is being hidden?” she asked.

Chris French, the deputy chief of the National Forest System at the Agriculture Department under Trump, defended the administration’s approach.

Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.) pressed French at the hearing about why the Forest Service went “back on its word” and canceled the study after Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue had told McCollum that the full review would be completed.

French replied that Perdue “determined through the process that a case-by-case approach was the right approach to look at the effects of the Twin Metals leases in the Boundary Waters area.”

The administration opposes McCollum’s bill, French testified, citing the economic benefits and job creation associated with domestic mining operations.

Lowenthal of California said the administration’s push to allow mining in the region raises serious questions. One of them, he said, was whether the decision to reinstate the leases had anything to do with the fact that Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner are renting a house from the head of the mining company developing the project.

Democrats’ efforts to investigate the decision have been blocked, Lowenthal said. The Forest Service and the Interior Department have responded to document requests from the committee with “pages and pages of nonsense,” he said.

‘The arrogance around here’ 

Two Minnesota Republican lawmakers also attended Wednesday’s hearing to oppose McCollum’s efforts. They were granted special permission to attend because they don’t serve on the Natural Resources Committee.

Rep. Pete Stauber, who represents Minnesota’s northeastern 8th District, bristled at arguments that federal intervention is needed to safeguard the environment. “We will not compromise the environment whatsoever,” he said. “If this mine goes forward, they will meet or exceed every environmental standard that is there and it’s going to bring good-paying jobs for our region.”

Rep. Tom Emmer (R-MN)
SARTELL, MN – FEBRUARY 22: Rep. Tom Emmer (R-MN) responds to a question at a town hall meeting on February 22, 2017 in Sartell, Minnesota. Emmer was asked questions ranging from health care, immigration, to education policy.(Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

Rep. Tom Emmer, a Republican who represents Minnesota’s 6th District, warned that McCollum’s bill “seeks to place an arbitrary, permanent ban on the way of life for generations of Minnesotans.”

He chided some of his House Democratic colleagues. “Listen, the arrogance around here. Listen to a guy who lives there and it’s in his backyard,” he said, referring to Stauber.


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Robin Bravender
Robin Bravender

Robin Bravender was the States Newsroom Washington Bureau Chief from January 2019 until June 2020. She coordinated the network’s national coverage and reported on states’ congressional delegations, federal agencies, the White House and the federal courts. Prior to that, Robin was an editor and reporter at E&E News, a reporter at Politico, and a freelance producer for Reuters TV.