It's unlikely that many Minnesotans read a recent Miami Herald special report on a Chilean village's battle to restore a river's natural flow after a copper mine opened nearby. That's a shame, because it's an alarming account of how elusive accountability and solutions are when problems occur and a powerful mining conglomerate wants to protect profits.
Los Pelambres is the name of the copper mine. The village is called Caimanes. Neither of those is likely familiar to Minnesotans, but the firm that owns Los Pelambres should be. It's Antofagasta, controlled by the wealthy Luksic family. Antofagasta owns Twin Metals Minnesota, which aims to open a 20,000-ton-per-day underground copper mine within the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA) watershed.
The $1.7 billion project would be perched on a lake draining into the fragile watery wilderness. That proximity demands caution to prevent pollution and other problems potentially impossible to fix. That's why this week's decision by the Biden administration to restart an environmental analysis of copper mining's impact on the BWCA watershed is welcome.
The study, when complete, could lead to a 20-year moratorium on mining on more than 224,000 acres of federal land near the BWCA. Its findings also could help persuade Congress to permanently strengthen mining protections for the watershed, an outcome that should be championed by the state's congressional delegation.
The Star Tribune Editorial Board's 2019 "Not this mine, not this location" special report pointed out that Congress had passed permanent mining protections for federal land near Yellowstone National Park and argued that the BWCA deserves the same consideration. The report also detailed maneuvering by the Trump administration to speed up approvals on the Minnesota project.
A key part of that strategy: halting a two-year study begun during the Obama administration of the industry's impact on the BWCA watershed. The two-year analysis was just months from completion but its findings were kept secret, raising a red flag about risks possibly uncovered.
U.S. Sen. Tina Smith and Rep. Betty McCollum, both Minnesota Democrats, commendably called to complete the study. Their leadership has had an impact. The decision to do so also reflects Minnesotans' commitment to protecting the BWCA. In a 2020 poll, 60% of those polled statewide opposed new mining near the federally protected wilderness. Just 22% supported it.
Restarting the study was wrongheadedly derided by some this week as a "political stunt." The reality is that it rectifies the brazen interference by the Trump administration to tilt the process in Antofagasta's favor.
Gov. Tim Walz should also act and halt state-level review of Twin Metals while the federal review is underway. The federal findings could deny the project a key third lease critical to its future. It would be a waste of state taxpayer-funded resources to evaluate a mining plan dependent on a lease that could be denied.
In a statement, Twin Metals said it remains "dedicated to the communities of northeast Minnesota and to advancing a sustainable mining project that will bring much-needed economic growth to our region" as well as "responsibly develop" minerals needed for renewable energy.
That statement ignores the project's risks to area businesses and jobs dependent on pristine resources. The Miami Herald report also serves as a timely reminder of how difficult it is to hold a powerful international corporation accountable if mining damage occurs.
Restarting the federal study to understand the risks to this irreplaceable wilderness is the careful stewardship the BWCA deserves.