Biden gives hope to defenders of the Boundary Waters as Chilean mining giant seeks copper, nickel

But electric vehicle agenda means U.S. needs more of precious metals found in northeastern Minnesota

By: - March 16, 2021 6:01 am

Dave Seaton helped rescue a moose that fell through the ice near his home near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Photo by Jim Morrison, Fire Chief, Gunflint Trail Volunteer Fire Department.

Grand Marais, MN — In Minnesota’s northernmost wilderness, full time resident Dave Seaton knows how to rescue a 600-pound moose if it falls through frozen lake ice: Get a team together, haul two canoes on either side of the animal and toss canoe straps around the moose to help it ease its legs to the ice surface. He should know. He’s done it. 

What Seaton is less familiar with is how to lobby Congress. And sue the Department of the Interior. But he’s learning because he’s trying the save the wilderness that he loves from copper and nickel mining.

“As a general rule, I try to avoid any public thing,” he said laughing. “It’s why I live in the woods.” 

Seaton and his wife Nancy own Hungry Jack Outfitters, a canoe guiding company that sits about half-way up the Gunflint Trail, the lone 57-mile road running from Grand Marais on the shore of Lake Superior to the trail’s end just south of Canada. Beyond this point no roads and no motors are allowed. The Gunflint Trail is surrounded by the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, comprising more than one million acres of pristine lakes and forest that Minnesotans know well. The Boundary Waters are within with the Superior National Forest, which is home to 20% of the freshwater in the country’s National Forest system.

Seaton admits he was intimidated when he first traveled to Washington, D.C. in 2016 to lobby to protect the Boundary Waters from copper and nickel mining. But the stakes were high. “The Boundary Waters is by far the most important thing in my life,” he said. “It’s where I make my living. And it’s where I raised my children.”

After three trips to D.C., meeting with congressional staffers and federal agencies, Seaton is more confident bridging the gap between his remote canoe outfitters and the capital’s ivory towers. “You realize these are human beings who put their pants on one one leg at a time,” he said. “You just find a connection and go from there.”

Seaton is part of a coalition of canoe outfitters, environmental organizations and local businesses suing federal agencies over what they say is the unlawful renewal of two mining leases near the Boundary Waters held by Twin Metals Minnesota. One lawsuit takes aim at a Trump administration decision that they allege unlawfully reinstated terminated Twin Metals mineral leases. Another lawsuit alleges the Trump administration failed to complete a thorough review of the environmental consequences of the mineral leases. 

Now, change has come with the administration of President Joe Biden and his picks of Rep. Deb Haaland to lead the Department of the Interior and Tom Vilsack, who was recently confirmed as secretary of the Department of Agriculture. 

Biden’s election is a double-edged sword, however. Although the mine’s opponents hope the Democrats will quickly block it, Biden also supports the rapid development of batteries used to power electric cars, which require the kinds of precious metals found in great quantities in northeastern Minnesota. 

The lawsuit is currently on “pause,” according to Becky Rom, the national chair of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, to give the Department of Justice time to consult with the new leadership in the Departments of the Interior and Agriculture.      

Many, including Seaton, are eager to see what this means for the fate of the Boundary Waters and Twin Metals Minnesota’s proposed copper-nickel mine in northeastern Minnesota. “Those two heads of departments hold a lot of sway on how things are viewed, whether documents are released or whether evidence gets presented at all,” Seaton said.

Biden administration puts priority on green technologies, requiring copper, nickel and other metals

Biden has expressed his support for increasing the production of electric vehicle (EV) batteries within the United States as part of an overall plan for U.S. energy independence and reduction of the carbon pollution that is causing global warming. The catch: These technologies rely on the very copper, nickel, cobalt and other metals that Twin Metals hopes to mine.

“The hidden part of our green technologies is that you need a lot of metals to make them work,” said Brian Leech, an associate professor of history at Augustana College focusing on the history of copper mining in the United States. “It is an irony that many mining people like to point out to make green and sustainability folks feel bad. But it is true.”

The Boundary Waters sits on top of the Duluth Complex, believed to be one of the largest known undeveloped copper and nickel deposits in the world.      

Photo by Christina MacGillivray/Minnesota Reformer.

In Minnesota, we have 95% of the country’s known domestic nickel reserves, 88% of the cobalt, 75% of the platinum group metals and 34% of the copper — that are all critical for a low-carbon transition,” Kathy Graul, spokesperson for Twin Metals Minnesota, said in a statement to the Reformer

Twin Metals is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Chilean mining giant Antofagasta. The Twin Metals proposed mine is located between Ely and Babbitt on Birch Lake and the South Kawishiwi River.

“The Twin Metals Minnesota project is consistent with many of the top priorities of the Biden administration, including its focus on the green energy transition and on strengthening domestic supply chains,” Graul wrote. “We would fully anticipate working with members of Biden’s cabinet to help address these important priorities for our nation.”

Opponents of the Twin Metals mine, including Rom, do not deny the need to mine minerals for batteries and other green technologies, but assert the edge of the Boundary Waters is not the place to do it.

“The Biden administration recognizes the importance of certain metals for the green economy,” Rom said. “But it also recognizes that there are certain places where there should be no mining.”

Tom Vilsack and Deb Haaland

Both Vilsack and Haaland have publicly supported protecting the Boundary Waters from mining. Vilsack authored a 2018 MinnPost Op-Ed that argued the Boundary Waters provide a sustainable path for strong economic development in the region. The proposed Antofagasta-Twin Metals mine “threatens the character and integrity of the Boundary Waters” and “puts all that at risk,” he wrote.

Vilsack served as the secretary of Agriculture during eight years of the Obama Administration. In December 2016, the Obama administration blocked a Twin Metals request to renew the mining leases. Vilsack made his ruling after the US Forest Service — which lies in the Department of Agriculture — produced a report warning that a copper sulfide mine could result in toxic metal seepage that would cause irreversible damage to the Boundary Waters’ freshwater resources and forests. In an 11th hour decision, the Obama administration commissioned a two-year detailed environmental study that could have resulted in a 20-year ban on any copper and nickel mining in the area. 

(Twin Metals called the report a “generic study” on the potential impacts of the mine.)

But when President Donald Trump took office everything changed.

Within weeks of taking office, Trump administration officials moved to remove roadblocks towards granting the mining leases, according to documents obtained through a public records request by independent filmmaker Louis Galdieri

In May 2018 the Bureau of Land Management reinstated the mining leases. In September of that year, the Trump administration cancelled the environmental study commissioned under the Obama administration.

A draft version of the study was later released to the public but with all 60 pages completely redacted.

The Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters hopes the study will be completed and released to the public and Congress under the Biden Administration. Environmental groups are heartened by the choice of Haaland, who co-sponsored U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum’s bill to permanently ban mining on more than 234,000 acres of federal lands near the Boundary Waters.

Twin Metals says it looks forward to engaging with members of the Biden administration as the project moves forward through the environmental review. “The World Bank has projected significant increases in the need for minerals to meet the demand for low-carbon technologies by 2050, including a 460% increase in cobalt, a 100% increase in nickel and a 350% increase in copper,” Graul said in the statement to the Reformer. “How and where we get the minerals needed for these technologies is a critical part of this conversation.”

Seaton said the experience has provided him with an education into the workings of federal agencies. “I now have a much better understanding of civics than I did in the ninth grade,” he said. 

“I always had this somewhat incorrect assessment of the agencies as being independent things that worked for the people. The Trump administration, and to some extent the Obama administration, has proved that they work at the pleasure of the president.”

In her confirmation hearing February 23, Haaland made it clear that if confirmed her tenure leading the Department of the Interior would be guided by the president’s agenda.

“If I’m confirmed as secretary, it’s President Biden’s agenda, not my own agenda, that I would be moving forward,” she said.

Haaland was confirmed Monday.

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Christina Macgillivray
Christina Macgillivray

Christina MacGillivray is an independent filmmaker and journalist from Minnesota. She is a former President William J. Clinton fellow, led migration media and reporting projects for the UN Human Rights Office over eight years and has reported from a dozen countries. When she's not reporting she is crafting, walking and spending time in northeast Minnesota.