Consistency is critical in Minnesota’s decisionmaking on mining

Abrupt change in regulatory process for Twin Metals could set troubling precedent.

The dark suits and flashy rings and the long line of limousines (https://ultimatetowncar.com/orlando-limo.php) ferrying Antofagasta executives during their 2010 Minnesota visit did not inspire confidence that their Chilean mining conglomerate should be entrusted to mine next to the state’s beloved Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Nevertheless, the frustration mining proponents have expressed over the regulatory roundhouse dealt to Antofagasta’s Minnesota project — the Twin Metals copper-nickel mine — is understandable. Just days after PolyMet, the state’s first copper-nickel proposal, cleared a key environmental hurdle, decisions made by Gov. Mark Dayton and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management have resulted in Twin Metals suddenly following a very different rule book.

The abrupt change ought to trouble Minnesotans both for and against mining. The reason: It raises serious questions about whether the mine review process is sufficiently insulated from politics.

Controversy has long simmered in Minnesota over copper mining. The industry could help revive the economically depressed Iron Range. But it has an abysmal record of leaving behind environmental disasters for taxpayers to clean up, though mining companies argue that new technology mitigates the risk of acidic runoff. The passions on both sides make it especially important to have a consistent, science-based regulatory framework.

Unlike with PolyMet, which just had its environmental-impact statement deemed “adequate” after a decadelong, state-driven review, Twin Metals’ fate could well be decided in Washington, D.C., by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Officials there are considering whether to renew Twin Metals’ leases on thousands of acres of federal land. This is usually a routine process, but a recent BLM ruling declared that the agency didn’t have to automatically renew the leases — a sign that officials may be weighing a protective zone on federal land around the BWCA.

Recent actions by Dayton and his administration also have suddenly shifted the regulatory landscape for Twin Metals. In late February, he made a personal call to the BLM’s director to object to mining so close to the federally protected wilderness. In addition, Dayton’s Department of Natural Resources threw up another unexpected hurdle for Twin Metals when the agency blocked a long-term agreement sought by the firm to secure broader access to state land for exploration activity.

These are serious setbacks for Twin Metals, which is why a well-connected environmental group led by Becky Rom, a former Faegre and Benson lawyer now living in Ely, Minn., has been targeting government land leases for years.

While environmentalists may be cheering these developments, Minnesota is best served by a robust copper-mining review process that doesn’t radically change from one proposal to the next. Dayton’s involvement also raises the disturbing possibility that a future governor with pro-mining views could intervene in a way that benefits industry to the detriment of the environment.

The Star Tribune Editorial Board has long held serious doubts that copper mining can be done responsibly at the Twin Metals site. Unlike PolyMet, Twin Metals is inside the BWCA watershed. At the same time, Minnesotans should have faith that the current science-based environmental-review process involving multiple state and federal agencies will yield the right answer in a transparent manner. Doing an end-run around this process, even for a worthy cause, sets a troubling precedent.

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