- Associated Press - Monday, June 13, 2016

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) - The U.S. Forest Service said Monday it is concerned about a proposed copper-nickel mine near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and took the unusual step of asking for public comment on the $2.8 billion project.

Citing the risk of contamination to a pristine watershed in northeastern Minnesota, the federal agency indicated it might deny mineral leases needed for the project, the Star Tribune (https://strib.mn/1ttf0ty) reported. A public hearing is set for July 13 in Duluth.

Company officials had no immediate comment Monday.

Gov. Mark Dayton praised the Forest Service. In March, Dayton said the state wouldn’t authorize access to its lands for the project.

“I share the view expressed today by the Forest Service,” Dayton said in a statement.

Twin Metals Minnesota wants to build an underground mine southeast of Ely near Birch Lake that the company says would create about 850 full-time jobs. Environmentalists oppose it because the site sits within a watershed that flows into Boundary Waters, one of the country’s most popular wilderness areas.

One of critics’ chief objections to mining the large reserves of copper, nickel and precious metals in northeastern Minnesota is that the metals are bound up in sulfide compounds that can leach sulfuric acid and heavy metals if exposed to air and water. Opponents say acid mine runoff would cause irreparable damage if it flows into the wilderness area.

The Forest Service cited those concerns as the reason for possibly withholding the mineral leases.

“Potential impacts to water resources include changes in water quantity and quality, contamination from acid mine drainage, and seepage of tailings water, tailings basin failures and waste rock treatment locations,” the Forest Service said.

Environmental groups hailed the decision.

“The Forest Service is approaching this in a very responsible way,” said Becky Rom, National Chair for the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters. “They are looking at the science, looking at the Boundary Waters and the problems that would exist if this type of mining were allowed in the watershed.”

But U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Minn., urged the Forest Service to extend the leases immediately. The leases have expired; they were first issued in 1966 and last renewed in 2004.

“Now is not the time to pre-emptively block new mining opportunities on the (Iron) Range, or the environmental review process itself,” Nolan said. “Moreover, it seems apparent from the Forest Service’s announcement today that they have all but decided to disapprove the leases even before the 30-day waiting period for public input and a listening session commences.”

The affected leases are under the control of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, but it recently asked the Forest Service to give its opinion, asking in effect whether the leases were in the best interest of the Superior National Forest. The BLM recently declined to automatically renew the leases as it did in previous decades, and earlier this month asked the Forest Service to weigh in.

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Information from: Star Tribune, https://www.startribune.com


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