Biden’s move to protect the Boundary Waters is great, but we need stronger laws | Opinion

November 9, 2021 6:00 am

Two loons swim with their chick on Clear Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in 2021. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Minnesotans and Americans across the country celebrated last month when the Biden administration announced that it applied for a 20-year moratorium on copper-sulfide mining on 225,000 acres of federal land surrounding the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

For almost a decade, proposed copper-sulfide mining near the Boundary Waters has been one of the biggest environmental fights in the country. The move towards banning this type of mining near the Boundary Waters is a major turning point. Everyone should take the time to celebrate, and though it might be a bit chilly, maybe take a spontaneous trip north and reconnect with the wilderness we are so fortunate to have in our state.

But the dangers of copper-sulfide mining are not behind us. To truly protect our waters, Lake Superior, and the Boundary Waters, we cannot solely rely on the federal agencies. We need to enshrine these protections in law by passing a “Prove It First” law.

The Prove It First law is simple: Before a copper-sulfide mine can open in Minnesota, there must be proof that a similar mine has operated for 10 years and was then closed for 10 years without causing pollution. Twin Metals asserts that they can mine safely, without polluting. But talk is cheap. Where is the proof?

To understand why such a law is necessary, let’s revisit the corrupt dealings and the flip-flopping that have opened the door for copper-sulfide mining in the Rainy River watershed in the first place.

The study into a possible 20-year mining moratorium on federal lands around the Boundary Waters was abruptly canceled by the Trump administration in 2018. It took a lawsuit for the administration to release the findings of the truncated study. When it was released, the entire report was redacted. Every page except the title page had been blacked out.

Clearly there was scientific evidence and data that the copper-sulfide mining industry didn’t want the public to see.

This happened around the same time that Antofagasta — the Chilean conglomerate that owns Twin Metals — was lobbying the Trump administration to reinstate their expired mineral leases. That is, to find a way to work around the law so they could open their mine.

The least conspicuous move came when the billionaire owner of Antofagasta, Andrónico Luksic, bought a mansion in Washington, D.C., to rent to Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, establishing a direct line to the White House.

The Trump administration listened. Under the cover of truly tortured legal reasoning, the administration illegally reinstated the mineral leases and rolled out the red carpet for Antofagasta to open its mine at the doorstep of the Boundary Waters.

The administration also canceled the study into the effects of copper-sulfide mining and hid the scientific findings from the public.

The Biden administration’s move to restart the study and apply for a moratorium on copper-sulfide mining on federal lands surrounding the Boundary Waters is great news.

But administrations change. The political climate changes and no matter who is elected, powerful lobbyists funded by multi-billion-dollar mining conglomerates will be pressuring officials to bend policy to the interests of a few.

Maybe future administrations will commit to protecting clean water. But that’s a big if, and it would be naïve to place all our hopes and the future of our beloved Boundary Waters and Lake Superior in the shifting hands of the federal government.

We need a law that would offer real, commonsense protection to Minnesota’s clean water.

We need a Prove It First law in Minnesota.

The copper and nickel is still there. Beyond PolyMet and Twin Metals, multiple mining companies have shown interest in exploring and developing future copper-sulfide mines in northeastern Minnesota.

We must acknowledge the possibility that future administrations may dole out favors and act in a way that again endangers clean water and the Boundary Waters.

When that happens, Minnesota must be ready. We need a Prove It First law.

Updated at 11 a.m. Thursday

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Chris Knopf
Chris Knopf

Chris Knopf, executive director of Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, has worked for more than 25 years to protect, preserve and restore our wild places. Prior to joining the Friends of the Boundary Waters, he was a practicing environmental attorney, served as the Ohio office director for The Trust for Public Land and worked as a major gifts officer with the Indian Land Tenure Foundation.