WASHINGTON — The Biden administration Thursday said it will establish a 20-year moratorium on mining upstream from Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, a vast preserve of lakes and woods that has been at the center of a fierce dispute over a proposed copper and nickel mine.
The plan withdraws from mineral leasing about 225,504 acres of watershed in the Superior National Forest. It could doom a proposed bid from Twin Metals Minnesota LLC, which had sought to build an underground mine in Ely, at the doorstep of the wilderness area. The Biden administration had already canceled the company’s two federal minerals-rights leases, and the new move drastically reduces the chance that the project will be revived.
The company has sued to reinstate the leases, which are critical to its $1.7 billion project, and the moratorium is expected to trigger fresh legal action. Meanwhile Republicans, who now control the House, are seeking to ease federal rules for the mine permitting process, an effort that could also complicate the administration’s plans.
Deb Haaland, secretary of the Interior Department, signed the moratorium into effect early Thursday. She said in a statement the decision came after scientific review, as well as discussions with local and tribal groups, which concluded mining posed a potential for irreparable harm to the pristine Rainy River watershed, hunting and fishing rights held by the Chippewa tribes, and ecology that has created a $540 million annual outdoor tourism industry in the area.
“Protecting a place like Boundary Waters is key to supporting the health of the watershed and its surrounding wildlife, upholding our tribal trust and treaty responsibilities, and boosting the local recreation economy,” Haaland said.
Twin Metals, which is owned by Antofagasta, a Chilean mining company, issued a statement saying it was “deeply disappointed and stunned” by the decision.
The mineral deposits “are vital in meeting our nation’s goals to transition to a clean energy future, to create American jobs, to strengthen our national security and to bolster domestic supply chains,” the company said. “We believe our project plays a critical role in addressing all of these priorities, and we remain committed to enforcing Twin Metals’ rights.”
The moratorium comes at a challenging time for the Biden administration, which is working to significantly increase the use of solar panels, wind turbines, electric vehicles and other renewable energy. To accomplish that, the government is trying to create a domestic supply chain of critical minerals such as cobalt, lithium and copper.
Republicans have said that decisions like canceling leases in Minnesota fly in the face of the administration’s stated goals. “America needs to develop our vast mineral wealth, right here at home, with high-wage, union-protected jobs instead of continuing to send American taxpayer dollars to countries like the Congo that use child slave labor,” Rep. Peter Stauber, who represents northeastern Minnesota, said in a statement. He said that China, which dominates the critical minerals industry, will benefit from Biden’s decision and said the administration “continues to hand our foreign adversaries every advantage possible.”
Minnesota Democrats and environmental groups hailed the decision as the most important land conservation measure in the state in decades.
“This is a huge deal. The Boundary Waters is a crown jewel,” said Becky Rom, national chair of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, an advocacy group. Rom, who lives in Ely, said her organization and others were prepared to fight any lawsuits that challenge the decision.
Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., who has introduced legislation to permanently prohibit Twin Metals from mining copper and nickel in the Superior National Forest, said the decision “will preserve America’s most visited wilderness area for the next generation.”
McCollum maintained the area’s pristine freshwater faced likely contamination from heavy metals and sulfuric acid from mine tailings that could have spread through the Boundary Waters’ 1.1 million acres of interconnected lakes and streams.
Republican and Democrat administrations have long battled over the watershed area.
President Barack Obama’s administration initially recommended a 20-year mining moratorium in late 2016, citing the potential environmental risks to the Boundary Waters if copper-nickel mines were allowed to open. The U.S. Forest Service began an environmental review of the proposal. President Donald Trump then reversed that decision and reinstated the leases.
Interior Department officials said Thursday that the new moratorium will not affect existing leases.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.